Are you a first time mum or has it been a while since you weaned your last baby? Don’t worry! I am here to help. Here is my step-by-step guide to Baby Led Weaning.
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What is Baby Led Weaning?
Weaning has been debated by ‘experts’ in the field for centuries. There have been numerous weaning experiments, some that even involved feeding solid food to newborn babies! In the past few decades though, there has mainly been two popular approaches. These are the traditional method, which i have dubbed ‘Spoon-Fed’ weaning (SFW), and the more recently popular ‘Baby Led’ weaning (BLW).
In my parents’ generation, the advice given was that babies could recieve solids from 4 months old. Hence the need for purees and spoon feeding. However, it is now well accepted that babies are not developmentally ready for solid food until 6 months. Their digestive systems are just not capable of processing food in the same way and they should therefore be exclusively fed milk (breastmilk or infant formula) for the first 6 months.
6 months old
By the time babies lose the tongue protrusion reflex and learn the necessary skills for eating, such as sitting up independently and bringing an object from their hand to their mouth, they are also ready internally to digest solid food. All of these magical things tend to happen around 6 months old. So that is now the age when weaning is recommended to take place.
When babies were being fed solids at 4 months old, they obviously weren’t capable of holding food or putting it into their mouths themselves. This meant that they were fed purees or specially made baby cereals. This is where the traditional ‘Spoon-Fed’ weaning approach has come from. It does make some aspects easier such as keeping the mess to a minimum, reducing the amount you have to alter your diet and making the parent feel reassured that baby is eating a certain amount, especially when it comes to vegetables.
“Cavemen were not using their nifty, baby-portion specific, food processors to whip up a puree”
Baby Led Weaning
On the other hand, Baby Led weaning recognises that babies have survived for, well, forever! And that the cavemen were not using their nifty, baby-portion specific, food processors to whip up a puree. No, in fact, most cultures around the world feed their babies whatever the family is eating. Some chew the food first, but many simply give the baby an infant-appropriate serving to explore. And this is essentially Baby Led weaning.
So in a nutshell, Baby Led weaning is waiting until your baby is ready for food and then simply giving them a small, safely prepared portion of the family meal.
It really is that simple.
Why choose Baby Led Weaning?
So why choose Baby Led Weaning? To make any parenting decision you first have to understand the benefits and the risks.
Baby Led Weaning is a fantastic way for your baby to learn about food. They take it at their own pace, respecting their own abilities and preferences. Your baby will learn to move food around in their mouth, chew and eventually learn to swallow. They will learn to understand their own hunger, fullness and satiety cues. And become part of the family at meal times, which is so important for their social and emotional development.
Chew, Swallow, Gag if necessary
Sometimes parents are worried about giving their child anything other than purees due to the risk of choking. However, the fact is that, allowing your baby to explore food at their own pace and learn to chew before swallowing, actually helps them to develop the skills they need to avoid choking. Choking and gagging are very different things. And all babies are equipped with the gagging reflex to protect them from choking. (I have listed some safety information and resources regarding choking at bottom of this post.)
Why do babies gag?
When babies are younger, their gag reflex is actually more sensitive. This means that food doesn’t go as far back before their gag reflex is triggered and baby starts to cough and retch, pushing the food back to the front of their mouth again. This is important to consider as we can take advantage of this sensitive period. Baby Led weaning means we can give our baby the opportunity to learn about chewing as early as possible. By offering finger foods right away, our babies can learn how to safely manoeuvre food around their mouths while they still have this added protection.
One of the big disadvantages to traditional Spoon-Fed weaning is that you are teaching your baby to swallow before they learn to chew. They then don’t get an opportunity to learn to chew until much later, when the adult deems them ready to try finger foods. By this time their gag reflex is much further back in their mouth.
A significant risk to bear in mind, is that if baby is eating what you are eating then what you are eating needs to be a healthy, balanced diet. That means no restrictions on calories or avoiding particular food groups. It is also important to consider the sugar and especially the salt content for young children, whose organs are still growing. We should be paying special attention to the micronutrients they need too. For example, iron and zinc. If you eat a well balanced diet that includes leafy greens, fortified cereals and red meat then you are good to go!
If you aren’t particularly health conscious, and eat ready meals most nights, then you might want to reconsider specially made baby meals. That also goes for vegans, who probably have put a lot of thought into their diet, but it can be complicated ensuring babies get what they need when only eating plant based meals.
Obviously, regardless of how you feed your child, there is always a heightened risk of choking for children aged 0-3 years. This is due to the small size of their trachea or ‘wind pipe’. It is roughly the size of a grape. Which means a grape, or anything else that size, can get stuck. A helpful tip i once heard, was to take the cardboard tube out of a toilet roll and look for small objects around your home. If they can fit through the tube, they are a choking risk for your baby. There are also lots of helpful tips and guides available online to help you prepare your baby’s plate. But we will cover this in the ‘How’ section later on too.
I chose Baby Led weaning
So i chose Baby Led weaning as the safest, best possible food experience for my child. With it’s learning opportunities relating to recognition of bodily sensations, mouth and tongue movement, hand-eye coordination, fine motor skill development (such as the pincer grip) and so much more. I felt it was the best way for my child to learn about eating in a positive, sociable environment as a respected member of our family.
When to get started?
As mentioned earlier in this post, there are certain abilities your baby develops that makes them ready for eating solid foods. It is generally accepted that these occur at around 6 months of age. Remember that each baby is an individual and will develop at their own pace. You might see these behaviours slightly earlier or slightly later than 6 months.
Signs of Readiness:
1) Sitting up independently
Your baby should have mastered sitting upright without help. They should be able to sit in a highchair easily without ‘slumping’ or tilting backwards or forwards. Sometimes highchairs may provide extra, removable padding to help prevent little ones from leaning back too far. But it is important that they can already hold this position themselves while playing and do so comfortably. This will ensure they stay upright while eating and will protect them against choking.
2) Hand-to-Mouth Coordination
Your baby will have better control when grasping objects and will often bring toys directly to their mouth for exploration. This indicates that they have the ability to pick up food and put it in their mouths themselves. One important aspect of Baby Led weaning is that your baby is the only person putting food into their mouth. This protects them from choking, teaches them independence, and shows respect for their mouth being a private part of their body. It also promotes learning about how much food they can cope with. Very often adults will keep filling a baby’s mouth or try to get a spoon in when baby is keeping their mouth shut or turning their head away. These behaviours are not only disrespectful of your baby’s cues but they are also dangerous.
3) Tongue Protrusion Reflex or ‘Tongue Thrust’ has Stopped
From birth, young babies regularly push their tongue out of their mouths. They also respond to objects being placed in their mouth by pushing it out using their tongue. This tongue protrusion reflex or ‘tongue thrust’ protects babies from choking on small objects. Once this reflex has stopped, babies can learn to hold food in their mouth and move it around before swallowing.
Be patient and wait for your baby to show you they are ready. It is a wonderful thing to learn about your baby’s emotional states and developmental stages. Taking the time to connect with them and notice their subtle signs and signals is one of the key aspects to parenting well.
How to do Baby Led Weaning?
Now this is the fun part! It is such an exciting journey watching your baby try out their very first foods. I would advise that you start simple and keep safety in mind at all times.
When preparing a plate for your baby there are 5 key things to consider:
Young children have small stomachs, small mouths, small hands and most importantly small airways. It is important to make small meals for your baby and cut up any items that might pose a risk to choking or might simply be too tricky for a young child to get into their mouth.
For example, Baby Joe loves grapes, all the berries, tomatoes and bananas. All of these get chopped up apart from the banana which can be served whole. If adding banana to porridge, I will dice it but usually I snap a banana in half and give Baby Joe his half to hold and chew on. Some parents leave the skin on to make it easier to grip. At 14 months old this is easy for him, but at 6 months old it was a difficult skill to grasp. Berries and grapes are cut in half and big ones are often quartered. I used to cut a tomato and remove the middle before slicing it into strips. Now Baby Joe can handle a quartered wedge. Use a common sense approach and if in doubt, cut it up!
Think Finger Foods. Long, thin shapes will be easier for your baby to grasp and lower the choking risk.
Young babies often have very few, if any, teeth! Consider how they might bite into something. Will they be able to bite or suck a small chunk off of the finger food you have given them? How will it feel in their mouth? Will it be easy to move around? For this reason, its best to steer clear of hard, raw fruits like apples and carrots. Steam them until soft instead. Toast is often a better option than soft, white bread which can be easily mushed into a grape-sized ball.
Babies don’t consider things like temperature before it is too late. It will be a while before they can blow on something to cool it down. Make sure you test everything before you offer it to your baby. I often stick my pinky finger into Baby Joe’s porridge and leave it there for a while. It may not be too hot at first touch, but believe me your finger may feel pretty sore after 30 seconds of a hot porridge dive. And that is exactly what your baby will do. Another way to gauge temperature is to touch a piece of food against your lip.
Remember never to microwave food for your baby. This can cause hot spots and be very dangerous. Don’t worry too much though. You can still provide both hot and cold dishes for you little one to explore. When Baby Joe is impatient for his food, I will often open the kitchen window and put his plate on the sill to cool down. Remember to give it a good stir too!
As I mentioned earlier, it is essential to consider your current diet and any adaptations you might need to make it baby friendly. Think about adding foods in to start with. Where can you add an extra vegetable to your meals? How could you get some more leafy greens into your day?
Fortified bread and breakfast cereals can be a great option for hard to get micronutrients like iron. And often plant-based milks, like oat or almond, will be fortified with iodine. I have listed a few books at the end of this post if you need a helping hand to get started.
A Word on Allergies
Allergies in babies are very possible.
In fact, Baby Joe has had several allergic reactions. This didn’t surprise us too much as we have allergies on both sides of the family. You don’t need to follow a prescriptive, staged plan with your baby. Just be sensible. If you know of any allergies in your family you may want to speak to your doctor or health visitor in the weeks before you start weaning.
Although we have several allergies in our family, we knew they were generally milder reactions and not everyone was allergic to the same thing. I read up and followed advice from infant nutritionists online. The most common allergens are dairy, eggs, seafood and fish, gluten and wheat. Introduce them slowly in small amounts. Your baby will only be eating small amounts to begin with anyway.
What does an allergic reaction look like?
Reactions can range from mild skin reactions like the ones Baby Joe has had (redness, ‘strawberry patches’, ‘nettle stings’) to severe airway compromising reactions (swelling of the lips or tongue, wheezing, blue around the mouth) which need emergency medical attention. Babies can react to foods regardless of there being known allergies in the family or not.
They can also grow out of allergies pretty quickly too. This is true regardless of how you introduce foods to your baby. Very often the advice is simply to cut out that food and have a back up plan for any reactions, such as medication. If you have reason to suspect your child will have an allergy or notice any strange skin reactions when you start weaning, then please contact your doctor straight away.
Avoiding known allergens
Baby Joe and i have been cutting out dairy, eggs, peanuts and kiwi since February. I cut them out too due to breastfeeding but it also makes it easier to prepare only one meal. We aren’t one hundred percent sure if he is allergic to all of these foods as the doctor didn’t do tests. However, since removing them from our diet he hasn’t had a reaction. The skin on his face has also cleared where before it was often very dry and red with spotty patches. We made these changes to our diet after speaking to our GP. We then saw a paediatrician after being referred by our GP and are now working with a specialist nurse. If you would like extra information, check out the Allergy UK website.
It has been a great learning experience as we have tried several new foods we might never have known existed. We enjoy oat and coconut milk, soy and coconut yoghurt, vegan pesto and cashew butter!
Nothing is Black and White
Throughout this blog post, I have been comparing traditional Spoon-Fed weaning to Baby Led weaning. But I would like to point out that it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing decision. I still buy Baby Joe the odd puree pouch to squirt into his bowl. He sometimes even likes for me to help feed him with the spoon. (This is something he instigated and thinks it is hilarious! Last night he only wanted Daddy to feed him his cheerios! Yep, we had breakfast cereal for our tea.)
The truth is that there is no one right way to eat. In fact, while we are at it, there is no one right way to parent either! You just have to do what is best for you and your family. As always, I just want to make you aware of all the skills your little one has. And I will always be an advocate for respecting children, parenting gently and maximising their independence.
Top Tips for Parents
1) Start simple.
And don’t worry if your baby isn’t interested in actually eating the food at first. Remember “Food before one is just for fun!”
2) Instagram is a fountain of Baby Led weaning knowledge.
There are also videos of babies gagging food back up which can be reassuring if you’re just starting out.
3) Learn the difference between choking and gagging. And know what they look like.
Choking is when your baby’s airway is completely blocked and they cannot breathe. They will be quiet and turn blue. Call for an ambulance.
Gagging is when food goes too far back in your baby’s mouth and triggers their gagging reflex. They will cough and retch to get the food up. Often they will turn red and their eyes might water. They might even be sick. This is okay and helps baby learn. It is best to leave a gagging baby to sort themselves out. Interfering could interrupt your child’s natural defence mechanism and cause choking to occur.
“Loud and Red – Let them go ahead.
Silent and Blue – They need help from you!”
4) Infant First Aid classes are available throughout the UK.
You can pay to do them or many baby groups put them on for free. They may have a donation bucket at the door to help raise money for the charity running the training. We attended a class at our local feeding group. It helped put my mind at rest and I felt much more secure in my ability to protect my baby. Try contacting your Health Visitor or local Speech and Language Team for group or course details. You can request a free infant first aid guide from St John’s Ambulance here.
5) And finally – Enjoy it!
Your baby will only ever do this once. Take your time to experience it with them. Take lots of photos and talk to your baby about what they are eating. While you’re at it, pop over to Ella’s Kitchen and get a free weaning wall chart. We loved ours!
Our favourite foods
Made with milk of your choice. We have used breastmilk, cow’s milk, oat milk and coconut milk.
Top it with anything! Butter, avocado, cashew butter, mashed banana or raspberries!
Shredded Wheat and Weetabix soaked in milk until soft. Rice Krispies and Cheerios make a great option for developing baby’s pincer grip too!
Pea & Prawn Risotto is a favourite in this house. Now Baby Joe is a bit older we love Chicken and Chorizo too!
Baby Joe has loved chewing on strips of steak since he was little. At first they mainly get the meat juice but now Baby Joe can chew it until the steak is pulverised and easier to bite off little chunks.
Baked, roasted or chipped! Nothing beats a tattie!
Mango, melon, berries, bananas and stewed apples have all gone down a treat.
Melty sticks and puree pouches can be lovely added extras.
Our Favourite Products
Baby Led weaning is so much fun. And it is so much mess! I have found some fantastic products which help to minimise the mess while still maximising your child’s independence at meal times.
This is the best Baby Led weaning tool out there. Read all about it here.
We love these beautiful plates and bowls which have a suction cup to prevent any throwing or accidental knocks at meal time.
Tiny cups perfectly sized for tiny hands.
Well designed chunky cutlery to support your child’s fine motor skills and develop their use of tools.
Cheap as chips and can be located right up against your table. This highchair is easy to clean and light to move around your kitchen. Remember to get both the chair and the removable tray, if buying separately.