Forget about mashing vegetables and pantry shelves full of pureed pumpkin. Baby-led weaning allows your baby to nibble at larger pieces of food so you can skip the pureed food stage and possibly avoid fussy eating habits later….
Around 6 months of age it is time to start introducing your baby to solids, as recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO). But do you have to start your baby on purees or is there another option available? Baby-led weaning is a relatively new concept that involves self-feeding. We asked a nutritionist about what this self-feeding concepts entails.
What is baby-led weaning and how does it work?
Baby-led weaning is precisely what it says it is: your baby controls (or leads, as indicated in the term) the weaning and feeding process. Baby-led weaning is about the elimination of pureed food in the transition between a milk-based diet, directly to soft finger foods. There are no teaspoon of porridge and pureed vegetables, but soft, structured foods, like broccoli stems, pasta shells or blanched carrot sticks which your baby can hold in his hand.
Some websites dealing with baby-led weaning recommended that parents who want to try this method start no sooner than 6 months. They also suggests that the finger foods than can easily be picked up by the baby, like a bowl of soft carrot sticks, broccoli floret’s and pumpkin fingers. At first, your baby will only suck at these foods, but this is quite normal and it is felt that babies should get used to the different foods at their own place, and decide for themselves which foods they will bite and chew. It remains very important then not to eliminate bottle-feeding whilst trying baby-led weaning, as your baby will initially not be able to eat very much. As time goes by, however, new soft foods like strips of cheese and soft pieces of meat can be introduced.
With baby-led weaning, babies can choose for themselves what they eat and what they don’t, and there is no question of being force-fed. Promoters of this method of weaning feel that it is a matter of trust in your child’s basic need or food, his tastes and the fact that he knows just when he has had enough.
What do you need ?
Your baby will be eating finger foods so you won’t need spoons and will only need a few plates. You will also need a sheet of plastic to lay under the high chair and some easy-to-wipe bibs, preferably with long sleeves, as baby-led weaning is a messy business.
What are the advantages?
Despite the fact that there has been no formal research done regarding baby-led weaning, mothers who have used this method have contributed to the long list of advantages. Here are some of them.
- Your baby is able to discover food for himself and gets to experience a variety of textures right from the beginning of his introduction to solids.
- Babies that feed themselves fir into the family’s mealtime sooner, allowing you the time and opportunity to enjoy your own meal.
- Babies introduced to solids foods through the baby-led weaning method often get used to a larger variety of foods initially eat just pureed food, and who may battle to enjoy the rougher texture of solids
- Baby-led weaning helps to develop fine motor skills as your baby has to pick up and hold his food
- Baby-led weaning is fun – each day there is a new variety of colours and tastes to choose from
- Baby-led weaning is natural, as your child instinctively eats what and how much he wants with his own hands
- Baby-led weaning allows his own children to enjoy their meals as they get to taste, for example, a carrot separately from pumpkin and get to know each taste individually, as no two food types get mixed together as is usually done when pureeing
- With baby-led weaning your baby has to use all his senses at mealtimes. Sight, touch, sound, scent and taste are all involved. In this way, a child learns from a very early age that all his senses are connected with each other
- Baby-led weaning aids the establishment of healthy eating habits, as babies immediately learn to eat at their own pace and to decide for themselves when they have had enough
- Because babies are not forced to eat just anything, mealtimes need not be a war zone. It can now be the time it is meant to be-stress-free family time.
As with everything, there are quite naturally disadvantages connected to baby-led weaning, one of which will most certainly be the mass and wastage of food. Remember that your baby will play with the food as much as he will eat it. In this way, much of the food ends up on the floor. This mess can also make it difficult to tell just how much your baby has eaten. Providing many different option at once could make it difficult to pinpoint exactly which food type is the cause of an allergic reaction. For this reason, we suggests that a baby gets introduced, over an initial period of three days, to only one new food category each day, and later over the course of three meals. Promoters of baby-led weaning have stated that babies instinctively know which food type they are allergic to and will avoid eating them when presented with them. There is unfortunately to scientific confirmation of this to be found.
Also agrees with many of the principles of baby-led weaning, especially the fact that breastfeeding is supported and with the WHO’s suggestion that babies should be breastfed exclusively until 6 months of age. Many of the WHO’s other suggestions regarding complimentary feeding is in line with what happens during baby-led weaning, such as:
- Allow your baby to participate in the meal, and turn mealtimes into an opportunity to show him that you take care of him emotionally and socially
- Be sensitive to your baby “full” indicators. Encourage your baby to eat, but do not force him. If he refuses a lot of food, experiment with different food combinations, tastes, textures and methods of encouragement. Also emphasises the fact that parents must be willing to experiment, they must ensure that baby gets enough food with nutritional value.
The golden compromise
A combination of soft and semi-solid food is better than finger foods only, and the first presentation of change-over period from milk feeds to a varied diet. I have found that porridge, or any puree, mixed with a little breastmilk, makes for an easy first solid food experience. Because your baby recognises the smell and taste of the breastmilk, he is eager to eat the mixture from a spoon. However, the first puree should not be totally smooth, but should not have large lumps that could choke him either. If it is totally smooth right at the beginning, most babies will only want to eat smooth purees, and will not want to eat food with different textures.”
Baby-led weaning has not been scientifically researched and parents are not being taught what the concept means and does not mean.
Is he getting enough?
If your baby only eats when he wants to, how will you know he is getting enough to eat? Those in favour of baby-led weaning agree that. It is difficult to gauge and it is for this very reason that it is important to carry on breastfeeding (or bottle-feeding) whilst you are practicing baby-led weaning. There is also no reason why you cannot feed him pureed food with a spoon if you are worried about his intake.
It is totally understandable that mothers are worried about choking, as baby is chewing on large pieces of food. “Set this worry aside,” say the experts and supporters of baby-led weaning. As long as your baby can sit in an upright position (and this usually happens by 6 months), there is very little risk involved. Apparently, research has shown that adults and children who are fed are more inclined to choke than those who are feeding themselves. Even advise parents with older babies and toddlers to take care, especially when feeding things like hard fruit and vegetables, popcorn, nuts and even raisins.”
For bottle- and breastfed babies?
Most mothers that have tried baby-led weaning breastfed their babies. According to information from various sources about this subject, many mothers see baby-led weaning as a natural progression from breastfeeding. Just as breastfed babies that have “worked hard” for their feeds, they are now have to work a little harder than spoon-fed babies for their food. These mothers also feel that the tongue and mouth muscles that breastfed babies use to get milk from the breast give them an advantage when learning to chew their foods.
Which babies should not be baby-led weaned?
- Babies who have a family history of allergies, food intolerances and digestion problems
- Babies with special needs and those who can’t chew correctly or pick up the food to put into their mouths
- Premature babies
Back to work
Can baby-led weaning be managed by anyone other than mom? “This is a difficult question,” says , a mother who has tried baby-led weaning with her baby. “Baby-led weaning is that much trouble, that one cannot really expect it of the day care centre. A baby or childminder at home though, should definitely be able to cope.”