Baby-led weaning is when you as the parent sit back and allow your baby to feed themselves from the first time they ever try solids. No spoon feeding, no puree, no buying baby food.
The term ‘weaning’ is based on the English meaning ‘adding complimentary foods’, and not the American meaning ‘giving up breastfeeding’. This is important, because a big part of the baby-led weaning is that food from 6 months onwards is an exploration. Milk continues to be the main source of nutrition well into the first year of a baby’s life.
A big part of baby-led Weaning is about autonomy. To encourage independence and learning by giving our babies the opportunity to grow, learn and make discoveries on their own. This way of learning is a very powerful thing. It helps them develop confidence. It allows their curiosity to develop.
When we feed a baby on demand, we are listening to and respecting their needs around hunger and satiation. We do this from day one. They can communicate this to us from the day they are born. They start to cry when they are hungry, and they come off the breast or often fall asleep when they are full.
So why do we stop this independence when solid foods start? By allowing a baby’s transition from just milk, to milk and food, to happen at their own pace, we continue to respect their ability to listen to their own body’s needs. And, hopefully foster a healthy relationship around food and eating from the very beginning.
SO WHEN DO YOU START??
With baby-led weaning, the basic rule of thumb for starting solids is at least 6 months, but the age of your baby is just one consideration, they also need to be ‘ready to eat food’. Which sounds a bit like ‘well duh’, but, when you think about it, how often do we wait for our babies to be ready in themselves to do things. How often do we rush them?
There is no rush to start solids. There is no magic switch inside our baby’s tummies that says, ‘start now’, and their digestive systems have handled nothing but milk until this point. While they are much more developed than they were at birth, slow and gradual is advised.
For a baby to be able to self-feed, they should be able to sit up reasonably well with a straight spine, not slouch or fall over. They don’t need to be able to sit independently, as for parents who don’t prop their babies, it can take a little while longer to naturally hold themselves straight, but they must be upright and not in a reclined position. This reduces the risk of choking, and makes eating a much more comfortable and safe experience.
You can have them on your lap to start with before moving to highchair, or (for the first few months of Ziggys eating life) the floor. As well as showing an interest in your food, they should be coordinated enough to grab it off your plate, bring it to their mouth without hitting themselves in the face, open their mouth and then chew, suck and swallow.
Also, and very importantly, their tongue thrust reflex should be gone.
The tongue thrust is a reflex that happens when the tongue pushes anything ‘other than a nipple or teat’ out of a baby’s mouth. It’s a protection mechanism against choking, and if a baby is still tongue thrusting out anything that goes into their mouth, it’s a developmental sign to wait a little while longer, they are not yet ready to move away from milk feeds.
There is a lot of confusion over signs of readiness, and these days, it seems all your baby need to do is sneeze and people will tell you ‘oh they must be hungry, start solids’.
Waking at night, watching parents eat, smacking their lips together, putting things in their mouth, eating their socks, cluster feeding in the evening, being a big baby, being a small baby, none of these are signs of readiness, they’re all just signs of being a baby.
When you start babyled weaning/baby led feeding, don’t stress if your baby is more interested in milk feeds than food. That’s okay, and actually quite common. Trust me, once they start eating decent amounts, you’ll know all about it every time you change their nappy!
AND HOW DO YOU START?
But how will he eat it? But what if he chokes? We’re having spaghetti bolognase, can you even feed spaghetti to a baby? Yes, yes you can, in fact with a bit of common sense, you can give almost anything to a baby. But there are some tips and guidelines that will make getting started a little less daunting.
Milk feeds are still their main source of nutrition. It’s a good idea to give a milk feed, then wait maybe 15 – 20 minutes before offering solid food, so a baby is full, and the food is not for ‘filling up’ so much as for tasting and trying. Milk will continue to be their main source of nutrition for the first year of life if not longer.
While the general rule of thumb is ‘offer babies whatever you are eating’ there are a few foods to avoid or minimise. A lot of this is common sense and should be a diet that as adults, we are trying to eat too – lots of good stuff, not so much crap stuff. Except as adults we can eat more crap shit than babies can, cause we’re adults, we make an educated choice to eat what we eat, and our digestive systems are much more mature.
No honey. None, zip, zilch. This seems to be the only thing around solids that all parents can agree on. There’s a small, but deadly chance of infant botulism, so no honey in the first 12 months. Not even if you have your own hives or buy organic honey farmed from the tears of the queen.
Be mindful of salt content. A baby’s immature renal system is unable to efficiently excrete sodium until around 12 months. There’s no need to stress about making sure every meal is salt free, by avoiding processed and packaged food, and feeding healthy homecooked meals you’ll be fine. When buying stuff, look at the salt content between a few different brands. When cooking don’t add extra salt during the cooking process, but salt the food on your plates to taste.
Nuts? Eggs? Dairy? I’m no doctor here and I am just going on what we did. Our family has no history of allergies, so we started all of these from around 6 moths. For nuts, we put a bit of peanut butter on his cheek – there was no reaction, so we then gave it to him on toast. For eggs and Greek yoghurt, we just gave it to him. And buy free-range eggs.
Sugar. There are no guidelines around baby led weaning and sugar, but, it’s an opportunity to give the best possible start to food that you can. The more I look into it, the more I am convinced that too much sugar is shit for our bodies. AJ and I made the decision not to give Ziggy sugar when he was a baby, and while we’ve relaxed a bit now he’s 2 and a half, for the first 2 years he was sugar free. A good rule of thumb is ‘less then 5g of sugar per 100g’.
Grains. There is some talk that grains should be withheld from a baby’s diet until around 2 years old when their digestive tracts is mature enough to handle them. For me it depends on the type of grain. Baby rice and infant cereal is just processed crap with the germ (the bit of the grain packed full of nutrients) taken out, so what you’re left with is essentially empty processed goop, fortified with synthetically produced vitamins. But brown rice and wholegrains ii moderation, I see no problem with.
Water. Because babies are having milk feeds as their main source of nutrition, their thirst is quenched by breastfeeding. You do not want the introduction to solids to make any difference to the amount of milk feeds they have to begin with. This protects your supply and ensures your baby is full and nourished However it is a good opportunity to start allowing them to try water but only very small amounts to begin with. They might like it, they might not. You can put a small amount into a sippy glass, a glass with a straw, or a small easy to manage vessel.
Don’t stress if all they want to do with the water is ‘make soup’ by floating bits of their dinner in it. Normal, and lots of fun!
So, what DO you feed them?
Well, yeah, you can pretty much feed your baby what you are eating, unless your food is super boring, in which case you might want to up your game. One of the perks of BLW is that there is no extra prep for your baby’s meals – they should be able to share a meal with you.
The traditional ‘starter’ vegetables for babies like carrots, kumara, pumpkin etc are super sweet, and can contribute to a preference for sweeter foods, so start with savoury food instead.
Meat, broccoli, soups, Greek yoghurt, eggs, and fish. Mashed potato, avocado, thick ‘grab with hands’ tomato soup. Zuchinni, eggplant, wholemeal toast with a scraping of marmite (not too much, it’s bloody high in sugar) or peanut butter instead.
Don’t fear full flavour foods, babies love to try different flavours. You might want to hold off on the chili for a while, but the food shouldn’t be bland. Taste is good! Spices are not scary. They might surprise you.
Be mindful of how you offer food. Don’t call it ‘yukky’ or make ‘end of the world doom’ noises when you give vegetables. Be enthusiastic about all food choices they get to try. Babies don’t know any better, and so by making that relationship with the savoury foods now, it makes it easier to continue as they grow.
There is a common misconception out there that baby-led weaning is ‘just giving them finger food’ and I think that some people think that because you go to ‘solid’ food and skip puree, you need to skip soft food all together. But, it’s more to do with self-feeding, eating together as a family, and having autonomy regarding how much and how quickly they ingest food. So yes, of course give soft foods, especially if that’s what you are eating as part of your meal. Just give baby a spoon or let them dive in head and hands first.
Don’t be scared of the mess. Embrace the learning opportunities that are happening as your baby explores temperatures, textures, smells, gravity and speed. Mess is a part of childhood. Mess is sensory play. Mess happens.
CHOKING VS GAGGING
Gagging, is a very normal part of baby’s discovery of food. Gagging is their way of dealing with, and moving around the food inside their mouth. Gagging is noisy and can be messy if they then spit the food out again. Babies gag much easier than an adult, and that is because of the gag reflex.
The gag reflex is something we all have, our bodies first line of defense against choking. Get something too far back and we gag, retch, and work it out again. For an adult, our gag reflex is way back down our throat – think about how far you need to put your fingers down to trigger it – this is because if we were to gag every time we ate, eating would be a bloody difficult process A baby’s gag reflex however is much further forward on their tongue. So, when a baby starts solids, they gag a lot. And it can take us a while to not react. The worst thing we can do is bang their back or grab them and finger hook the food out of their mouth, as then they never get the opportunity to learn how to manage it. You almost have to sit on your hands. Pay careful attention to your baby, but let them work it out. Coughing, turning red, vomiting or spitting it back out again are all normal.
Once the gag reflex has been triggered a few times, your baby will learn how much food their mouth can handle, and how to move food around in their mouth before swallowing. Some babies work through this faster than others, but with all babies, the gagging stage will pass.
Choking is different. Choking is serious and can be deadly.
Choking is when your airway becomes blocked, and you cannot breathe. If it’s not fully blocked, a baby will start coughing to clear the food, which is often quite effective, but if the food is fully blocking the airway then they cannot cough, and often make no sound at all.
The first signs of choking can include; total silence or soft or high-pitched sounds while inhaling; the inability to cry or make much sound; bluish skin colour; difficulty breathing (ribs and chest pull inward); and loss of consciousness if the blockage isn’t cleared.
What should I do if I think my baby is choking?
Choking is a medical emergency and presents completely differently to gagging. Permanent brain damage can occur in as little as 4 minutes without air, so prompt first aid can save your baby’s life. Try to dislodge the object first with five (5) back blows. If the object is still blocking the airway after the back blows, begin chest thrusts. If your baby turns blue, is not breathing, or loses consciousness, call your country’s emergency number and begin infant CPR. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lv_xJldarp0
Whilst rare, choking is something that can happen at ANY time to ANYONE, including adults. It’s always a good idea to be prepared by learning how to deal with a choking incident should one ever occur. Look into first aid courses available near you.
There are way to minimise choking when your baby starts self-feeding. Make sure your baby is sitting straight with a supported spine, not reclined or slumping. Don’t cut food into perfectly windpipe sized pieces. If your baby has a bottom tooth, give then a whole apple and not a piece of apple – they’ll happily shave away at the flesh and eat a fair amount.
Some people worry that baby led weaning has a greater risk of choking than puree foods. While choking is of course a possibility, it is possible for anyone of any age while eating. Allowing a baby to self-feed does not make choking as common as you may have been lead to believe from the anecdotal reports you hear from others. This is because many people do not understand what gagging is, and it is gagging that babies do a lot of when they first learn to eat.
It is also worth considering that if a child is fed exclusively with spoon fed puree, or those sukky pouches when they start solids, they learn to ‘suck and swallow’ without having to chew or manage food in their mouth. This can be worrying when they move to more solid food and I think that people may not realise the recommendation for spoon feeding and puree feeding is also to introduce finger foods alongside so a baby does learn to chew and swallow.
There has been some research conducted by the University of Otago on Baby Led Weaning. The study (BLISS- Baby-Led Introduction to Solids) looked at the importance of self-regulation in weight management, which is a fancy way of saying; if babies feed themselves and learn to feel full, will they be less likely to overeat as adults? They followed around 200 families and one finding they released was that there was no greater risk of choking in a baby led weaning approach to solids.
However you decide to introduce solid foods, choking is something to be mindful off. By knowing how to recognise what gagging is and what choking is, and knowing how to respond in each different situation, you should feel more confident when it comes time to start the journey of food, eating and exploration with your child.
~But don’t babies need extra iron?
Okay so we’ve all heard it right; babies need iron supplements, babies need rice cereal because it has iron in it. But is this true? Has evolution got it so wrong that for some reason our milk isn’t enough? No.
Babies are born with iron stores which do not magically disappear at 6 months. There are several factors that can influence the amount of iron stores a baby has. Generally speaking a healthy full-term baby who experienced delayed cord clamping of over 3 minutes or so, will not deplete their iron until closer to 12 months.
The iron in a mothers breastmilk, while not as high as the iron in say a steak, is more easily absorbed by our babies. Formula is also iron fortified. Then, when your baby starts eating, they will also get iron from other sources such as eggs, meat, lentils etc. These compliment the iron from their milk diet.
So no baby rice, no rice cereal, save your money and buy yourself a coffee. If you’re really worried, cook your steak medium rare and cut a few strips for bubs to suck on.
~Will starting solids make my baby sleep all night?
No. There is no evidence to support the theory that babies will start sleeping ‘better’ when you start solids, and some parents find that the opposite is in fact true, and their sleep gets worse. One of the historic signs to start solids was babies waking often, but we know now that this wakefulness is a developmental stage most babies reach at around 4 months and not hunger related. Hang in there. Use the money you’re saving to buy good coffee.
~Is puree bad?
No. There is confusion with people saying ’I did both’ meaning, I did puree and baby-led weaning, but this is not possible as the entire philosophy of baby-led weaning is self-feeding not spoon feeding. Doing ‘both’, in the sense that a parent does a bit of spoon-feeding and a bit of finger food is what ‘traditional’ weaning should actually look like. Parents are encouraged to give finger food alongside spoon-feeding to allow babies to explore a range of textures and tastes.
~Does it even matter how and what I feed my baby?
Well, hey – as long as a child is fed right? No. Personally, I believe is that a healthy relationship with food and eating begins in childhood. Regardless of how we decide to introduce solids to our children, we need to be aware that we’re laying foundations for their eating habits for the rest of their lives.
How many adults finish everything on their plate, even if full? How many adults comfort eat? How many adults don’t know how to cook, or grow food, or plan meals for the week. Eating is more than just opening our mouths and putting stuff in it, and personally I know how strongly our childhood experiences influence our adult decisions.
~Why should I believe what I read on a Mum Blog?
You shouldn’t. I’m no expert, bloody hell, I used to be a Travel Agent, this parenting gig is new to me too. What you should do, is your own research. Read about it. Read about it from more than one source. Read about from people with no financial gains to be made from the information they give. Over time information changes and develops, research is conducted, and things are learnt. What we knew 50 years ago is not the same as the rules we follow now . . . cigarette anyone? How about some asbestos in your ceiling?
~Okay I’m keen! Where can I find more information?
You mean this didn’t cover it!? There are heaps of resources out there for more advice and information. The book ‘Baby-led Weaning‘, is the best. There are BLW support groups all over Facebook. I love this one: https://www.facebook.com/groups/Babyledweaningcommunity/. There are also websites like www.babyledweaning.com and it’s often a topic covered in discussions and workshops run by your local La Leche group.
This is the second time we have done baby-led weaning having first done it with Ziggy two years ago. The decision around starting solid food, and the best way to do this, is a decision only you can make for your child. The more information you gather, the better equipped you are to make the right decision for you.