As with many aspects of parenting, you have a choice when it comes time to introduce solid foods to your baby. You can begin by offering your child pureed foods (such as oatmeal, rice cereal, and a variety of fruits and vegetables), fed to them with a spoon. Or, you can choose baby led weaning, which encourages your child to feed themselves from the very beginning. While both methods achieve the goal of getting your child accustomed to solid foods, many parents are less familiar with baby led weaning. Here is an overview of this method of weaning.

How does baby led weaning work?

There are two basic principles that define baby led weaning: (1) You offer your child soft-cooked or mashed foods, instead of pureed foods that must be eaten with a spoon; and (2) You allow your child to feed themselves. Here is a closer look at each of these principles.

  • Offer your baby soft-cooked or mashed foods. This means providing your baby with food that is easily consumed but that they can still feed to themselves. For example, you might slice carrots into sticks and steam them until they are soft. You might cut up pork chops or other meats into chip-shaped chunks for your baby to mouth. You can cook and mash up a little bit of apple to hand your child.
  • Allow your child to feed themselves. This is one of the biggest differences between baby led weaning and traditional weaning. Instead of feeding your child, you offer them the food and let them do the rest. Often, this means your child will create a large mess and, in the beginning, eat very little actual food. However, the focus in baby led weaning is less on how much your child eats and more on letting them experience the food and the eating process for themselves.

What kinds of foods can my baby have during baby led weaning?

Baby led weaning encourages the introduction of a wide variety of foods, as long as your baby is developmentally on track and otherwise healthy. In fact, most baby led weaning experts will encourage you simply to offer your child some of what you are having at each meal.

There are a few caveats to offering your baby whatever you are eating. Try to avoid high allergy foods (such as peanut butter, egg whites, and seafood) as well as foods that have lots of salt or added sugar. Additionally, be mindful of any small finger foods that may pose a choking hazard (such as chips, popcorn, gum, hard candy, etc.).

Any other food is encouraged, particularly because one of the goals of baby led weaning is to teach your child to enjoy a wide variety of tastes and textures from a very young age. However, you should always consult your pediatrician before introducing solid foods to make sure that there is no reason your child should avoid certain foods.

What are the signs that a child is ready for baby led weaning?

Purees are often introduced when a child is around 4 months old. These often work for younger children, because they are easily swallowed, even if the child is not yet ready to manipulate the food themselves. However, most children are not ready for baby led weaning before 6 months of age, and some may need to wait until they are closer to 8 months old. The best way to tell if your child is ready is to look for your child to exhibit all of the following signs:

  • Your child can sit up without support.
  • Your child no longer has the tongue-thrust reflex that forces food out of their mouths.
  • Your child has enough fine motor control to grasp the food (preferably a pincer grasp).
  • Your child can chew.
  • Your child is interested in food (watches you while you eat, tries to grab food off your plate, etc.).

Does baby led weaning pose a choking hazard?

Baby led weaning does not pose an increased choking hazard over traditional weaning, as long as you are careful to offer soft-cooked or mashed foods in shapes and sizes that are readily grasped and consumed by your child (i.e. sticks, chip shapes, etc.). For example, offering your child round-cut carrots might pose a choking hazard, but offering it soft-cooked and cut into strips should not present a danger to your baby.

In fact, most babies have a gag reflex located near the front of their throats. This gag reflex serves as a teaching tool as they explore food, and prevents them from swallowing large chunks of food that might choke them. As they grow older (and more adept at chewing before swallowing), this reflex moves further back in the throat. As a result, your baby might gag occasionally as they explore their food, but this gagging should serve as protection against choking and teach them how to chew their food before swallowing.

However, no matter what type of weaning you pursue, you should never leave your child unattended while they eat. You should also learn what to do if your child does begin to choke, and you should always offer foods that present a low choking risk for your baby.

Does baby led weaning provide enough nutrients for the baby?

Baby led weaning allows your child to choose what they eat and how much they eat at each meal. This might mean that your child eats very little in the beginning, or chooses one food over another at meal times. However, since your child is still getting most of their nutrients and calories from breast milk or formula at this age, there should be no concerns about nutritional deficiencies.

As your child gets older, they will begin to get better at eating and begin to consume more at each meal. At this stage, they should be able to follow their body’s cues regarding how much they need to eat (and even what kinds of foods they need to eat). As a result, as long as you are providing a variety of healthy foods for them to choose from, they should be able to meet all their nutritional needs through baby led weaning.

What are the advantages to baby led weaning?

Proponents of baby led weaning list many advantages to this method of introducing solid foods to your baby. Perhaps the biggest of these is the goal of getting your child used to good eating habits from an early age. Baby led weaning might contribute to the development of these habits because it encourages the baby to take control of what and how much they eat at each meal. As a result, they can more successfully consume the foods that have the nutritional values they need for that meal, as well as follow their own body’s cues regarding hunger and fullness. And, because baby led weaning introduces them to a variety of textures and flavors at a very early age, they may embrace a wider variety of foods when they are older.

Baby led weaning also tends to be easier for the parent. Instead of spending time cooking and pureeing food (or spending money purchasing baby food), they simply offer their child some of whatever they are eating. Plus, because the baby is allowed to choose how much and what they eat from the choices the parent gives them at each meal, the baby and parent may be less stressed and enjoy the meal together more.

Finally, baby led weaning encourages babies to learn about eating and practice their fine motor skills through hands-on experience.

Baby led weaning is not for everyone. Some parents do not feel comfortable with introducing larger pieces of food to their children. Other children may have developmental or health concerns that make baby led weaning difficult. However, for others, baby led weaning can be an easy and desirable choice for introducing solids.