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Baby-Led Weaning: A Simple Approach to Solid Food Introduction

Filed in Health and Beauty, Parenting by on June 13, 2013

Baby-Led Weaning

By Contributing Writer, Tyanne

Baby-Led Weaning Introduction

Nourishing our children is a task I can safely say mothers do not take lightly.  I have memories of my own mother looking at me in horror as I left for school without eating breakfast—as if I had ripped out her heart and stomped on it.  To this day I hear worry in her voice when she learns I have skipped or missed a meal for any reason.

Since becoming a mother myself, I am surprised by the strength of my own instinct when it comes to caring for my child’s nutrition.  I have experienced intense anxiety at times when I was unsure if he was getting enough to eat, and I have experienced great pleasure in moments when I see him gladly consuming nutrient-rich foods.  On any day, whether I am hungry or content, I will gladly give up my portion to feed my child.

These strong emotions, I believe, are part of the beautiful way God has wired mothers to nurture and provide for their children.  It’s as though we yearn to meet their needs.  We feel compelled to nourish their little bodies, and we know they depend on us to do so. 

The Debates on Baby Nutrition

When I consider the depths of my own mental and emotional investment in the basic nutrition of my children, I better understand the temptation mothers have to passionately enter into the many debates on what, when, where, and how a baby should eat during their first year of life.  We love our children, we want what is best for them, and we cringe at the thought of another mother judging our nutritional decisions as less than adequate.

I would guess many of you have experienced these debates for yourselves:

  • Breastfeeding vs. Formula
  • On-demand vs. Scheduled
  • To supplement or not to supplement?
  • Grains vs. Absolutely NO Grains
  • Solids at 4 months? Or 6 months? Or whenever?
  • Organic vs. Non-organic

The list goes on and becomes frighteningly more detailed in the fight for which mothers are doing it all the right way.  (“Oh, no, don’t tell me you are using THAT brand of bottle!?” or even “Haven’t you heard it’s a really bad idea to introduce peas before broccoli!”)

Some of us have entered into and stepped away from these debates feeling beaten down and disqualified for motherhood, while others continue to wave their flags of mommy righteousness onward to convince the world they have it all figured out.

As a new mom I found the availability of options and information in these debates to be extremely overwhelming.  The internet has made it possible to simultaneously convince yourself that you are a super-hero mom and an absolute embarrassment to the calling in a matter of two Google searches. 

I think I spent months wondering if my breast milk was poisoning my child or giving him the perfect blend of nutrients on earth and making him into a genius muscle man. (I am only half-way kidding.)

Today I am going to add to the overwhelming amount of baby-care information on the internet by explaining the baby-led weaning method of solid food introduction.  My hope, however, is not to overwhelm you with yet another option or invite you to yet another debate on baby nutrition.

Instead, I hope to encourage those of you who might be struggling with the more traditional method of purees and spoon-feeding and enlighten any of you who have never heard of this less-traditional approach.

Our Path to Baby-Led Weaning

By the time I had inched and clawed my way through 6 months of breastfeeding on-demand, wondering every day if my choices were negatively affecting his sleeping habits or his digestive issues, I was ready to stop feeling clinically insane anxious about baby care.  I was ready to set aside the words of well-meaning friends who had given me long talks on how I must do this or that.  I was ready to research information on the decisions I was making without taking the extreme sides of an issue to heart.

I was ready to get over my quest to do it the right wayand feel confident that God would lead and equip me to nourish my child adequately regardless of how other mothers chose to do so.

This declaration of independence in my mind came just in time to begin introducing my first baby to foods beyond breast milk.  I was able to read through the material provided by our pediatrician, talk with family and friends, and search for information online without pulling my hair out at the thought of doing it wrong.

I began experimenting with a few pureed vegetables around the time my son was seven months old, but I did not develop a clear plan or follow a set schedule.  I was put at ease by the phrase our pediatrician had repeated to me several times: It’s food for fun until one.  In his opinion, babies continue to get their nutritional needs met by breast milk or formula at least until age one, so introducing solid foods could be treated only as a practice time until then.

Though my 7-month-old baby was interested in the food at first, he never seemed to enjoy it beyond a few bites, and he never ate a full serving size of any food.  I was not worried about his nutritional needs, yet I hated the feeling that I was wasting both food and money as we attempted to practice eating each day.  After a few weeks of these attempts, I stumbled upon the phrase “baby-led weaning” online. 

I had never heard this phrase before, and it was not the way my friends were feeding their babies.  Still, the more I read, the more I grew convinced that this method was a good fit for my child and my own preferences.  I then said goodbye to pureed foods, put away my blender and ice-cube trays, and stopped shopping for separate foods for my child. 

What is Baby-Led Weaning?

Baby-led weaning, also referred to as “baby-led solids,” is a method of solid food introduction by which infants are offered a variety of solid foods and given the opportunity to self-feed at their own pace.   

Instead of the traditional spoon-feeding method, parents using this approach simply allow their baby to explore a plate of finger food at meal and snack times.  The child naturally progresses from experiencing a variety of tastes, textures, and colors through sucking or licking to eventually chewing and swallowing foods as they are ready.  Babies are allowed to eat as much or as little of a particular food as they desire—or even reject a food entirely.

While the term “weaning” is often thought of as the time when a baby is no longer offered breast milk or formula as their primary source of nutrition, in this case it is referring to the introduction of additional foods to a baby’s diet that will gradually lead to the child consuming less milk or formula.  Regardless of what method is used to introduce solid foods and how long you intend to bottle or breast feed, the beginning of food introduction is considered the beginning of the weaning process.

How Did Baby-Led Weaning Look in Our Home?

Although I became more mindful of the kinds of foods I was planning into our family meals, choosing to use the baby-led weaning approach had very little effect on my grocery shopping and daily food preparation.  I planned our normal meals, cooked them as I normally do, and prepared a plate for my son with smaller portions.  Sometimes I would steam vegetables a little longer to make them softer, but often times the only difference between his plate and ours was in the bite sized pieces I gave him.

Early on, the bulk of his food options included:

  • A wide variety of steamed vegetables such as carrots, peas, and broccoli
  • Fruit, both fresh and canned
  • Eggs — scrambled or hard-boiled
  • Some ground meats or large pieces of tougher cuts of meat
  • Whole beans — black, kidney, garbanzo, etc.
  • Brown rice and whole grain pastas

Approximately six times each day I placed my son in his high chair and put food in front of him.  It was completely up to him whether or not he ate the food, but for the most part he would try everything and eat the most of whichever food he enjoyed.  As often as possible his meals took place simultaneously with ours—he ate the same food as we ate  and he did so at his own pace with his own hands.

But Doesn’t He choke?!

This is the most common question I was asked as others observed the foods we were feeding our son while most other babies were only eating purees.  In the beginning, he only had a few teeth and that would lead others to believe he was swallowing whole pieces of food.  The short answer is: No, he has never choked. 

Babies naturally learn to chew or even gum their food to break it down as they develop, and until they are able to do so they do not move the food to the back of their mouth to swallow.  When given food that is difficult to break down or too large to swallow, babies may suck on it or chew on it but then spit the rest out.  (This was consistently our experience.)   

Between 7 months and 1 year, the amount of food he was choosing to chew and swallow gradually increased, and he was enjoying a wide variety of foods and rejecting very few.  We continued to breast feed on demand during this time, and he maintained at least four nursing sessions per day until about 14 months when he gradually dropped feedings until he weaned completely at 16 months.  I chose to continue to nurse for as long as he desired, but this is not a necessary part of baby-led weaning. 

By age one, our son was eating many of his vegetables and fruits raw and whole: taking bites of hard carrots, eating safely to the core of an apple, and consuming orange slices while disposing of the peal independently.

Today my son is 27 months old and continues to self-feed while enjoying as much or as little of a food as he desires.  While this might sound as though meal times are undisciplined, one of the benefits we have experienced using this approach is that our child seems to know his own appetite well and nourish himself appropriately.  Most of the time he chooses to eat an appropriate amount of his food and we experience stress-free meals.

Some Possible Benefits of Baby-Led Weaning

Baby-led weaning proponents love to make sweeping claims that this method is a fool-proof way to raise a healthy-eating child who is NEVER picky about their food options.  I am hesitant to make a claim that this method is great for all babies or that the result is ALWAYS a child with an ideal appetite.

However, if these statements were able to be proven, our child could contribute to proving them true.  Our son sets an example in our house of someone who makes healthy eating choices every day—most often choosing fresh vegetables and fruits to make up the bulk of his daily calories.  It is not uncommon for him to request carrot sticks while the rest of us are eating pizza, and he consumes a large amount of nutritious foods with a smile on his face.

In terms of finickiness, we have never had a problem with him refusing to eat a particular food.  He loves it all!  The only exception has been at times when he can see a dessert on the counter that he just CAN NOT stop thinking about.

An additional benefit that I attribute to this method of food introduction is the natural progression that takes place as babies grow in their ability to taste and break down a variety of textures.  Because he has always eaten the foods that we eat regularly, we had no need to transition him from baby-specific food to our adult foods.  It just happened.

Finally, I know that our food budget benefited from this approach.  By no longer shopping for separate food for my child, I was able to focus our grocery needs on the family as a whole and stop spending money on special food options for only one person.

Proponents of this method also claim that allowing a child to eat according to their own appetite contributes to a life-long instinct to eat appropriate portions and therefore reduces their risk of obesity.  I have not come across any credible data to back up this claim however, so I will only say that it is possible that baby-led weaning will reduce a child’s risk of obesity.

Why Baby-Led Weaning Worked for Us

Stepping away from purees and giving my son opportunities to try regular foods at his own pace was one of the best decisions we made in his first year.  I say this not because I believe it is the right method for everyone, but because it was very clearly the right method for us.

Here are some specific reasons baby-led weaning was a good fit for us, and possibly a good fit for you, too:

  • It was extremely easy and stress-free.
  • Our baby had little interest in pureed food, but he was very enthusiastic about touching and tasting whole food.
  • Spoon-feeding our child did not go well for us, but he thrived at opportunities to self-feed.
  • We eat most of our meals at home so it was easy to readily provide whole foods that were cooked to the desired consistency.
  • We utilized baby sign language, which helped me to understand which foods he preferred, when he wanted more, and when he was truly done eating the food on his plate.
  • Our pediatrician was supportive of our choice even though he had never heard of it.

Research Baby-Led Weaning for Yourself

If you can relate with any of the above reasons, it is with excitement that I encourage you to research the baby-led weaning method further and consider trying it for yourself.  There are a number of books on the market that describe the method further and explain the research and benefits behind it.  This might be where you prefer to start with your research, but I can not stress enough that this is not the ONLY/RIGHT way to go about introducing solids and many of these books can make it sound as though it is the smartest choice for ALL babies.

I gathered most of my information online when we began using this method.  I found this website/blog/forum especially helpful at that time.  Perhaps the best part of using this method, however, is that there is great freedom in following your own preferences and doing things in a way that works for your baby and your family.

Whether you are interested in using this approach or you intend to go about solid food completely differently, I think anyone can gain insight from an understanding of baby-led weaning.  For our family, it was extremely freeing to let go of our fears that our child was not allowed to try a particular food—and simply let him try things at his own pace.  For you, it might help relieve the pressure to get your baby to eat the perfect amount of the “right” purees.

With so many debates on which way is the right way to nourish our children, I believe the great success families have had using this method can help us all loosen up a little bit.  There are ways to do things that are not traditional, they are not what all your friends are doing, and they may even raise a few eye brows—BUT those ways might be exactly what works well for your baby! 

I love baby-led weaning.  It worked beautifully for us with our first child, and I will highly consider doing it again with future children.  My advice for all moms on this topic, however, is to know your baby (as all mommies do) and choose what method is most comfortable for everyone involved.

Do some research, don’t be intimidated by the “right way” other moms are doing baby-care, and enjoy this special time with your child.  Food IS fun and we can guide our babies to enjoy it in whichever way we choose!

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About the Contributor

Tyanne is a young pastor's wife and mother to one with hopes for a full quiver. Through her savior, Jesus Christ, she seeks to bring honor and glory to God in all areas of life, but especially in how she acts as a helper to her husband, a mother to her children, and a servant to the Church. She gets fired up about things like theology, Bible dictionaries, and the doctrines of grace. She is an artist at heart and enjoys creating through painting, crafts, and photography when time allows. You can find her over at Lamp on a Stand, where she writes to promote biblical womanhood, Christ-centered living, and sound biblical teaching.

Comments (8)

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  1. Wemmick Girl says:

    Tyanne, I just gave my 15 month old a whole apple yesterday. (I would NEVER have done that previous to reading this article.) He LOVED it – and ate all around the rind like a big person. The other perk is that it interested and occupied him for a LONG time. :) My other kids were shocked that I would give him a whole apple. They all know how uber paranoid I am about choking. He’s got lots of teeth though – including two sets of molars. He did fine.
    Wemmick Girl recently posted…Mail Bag: Finding BalanceMy Profile

  2. Tyanne says:

    Natalie, apples have been a major staple for us! I’m so glad your little one loved it! It is very typical for me to pack one or two in the diaper bag while letting him carry one out the door with him, and SO easy. We often go with the Gala apples because it seems like the skin is a bit thinner and easier to chew up for him, whereas some of the other kinds with thicker skins leads him to bite the skin off and spit it out before eating what is underneath. (It’s a frustrating little mess!) If we have a batch of apples with thicker skin, sometimes we peal the skin before giving it to him to avoid the mess.
    Tyanne recently posted…Baby-Led Weaning: A Simple Approach to Solid Food IntroductionMy Profile

  3. We’ve started using BLW with our youngest (8 months old now) because he’s shown right from the start that he’s very interested in table food rather than purees. I must say, though, that I find it WAY more stressful than making my own baby food. I’m definitely not going to make separate meals for him, so what I make for us is for him, too. One sight says you can’t give them anything with any salt, because it will damage their kidneys. Another site says you can’t give them anything with any sugar, because it will harm them. So now I’m supposed to cook without ANY salt for anyone in the family? Then one site says that you should give large ‘matchstick’ pieces because tiny little pieces pose a choking risk. The next site says that large ‘matchstick’ pieces are a huge choking risk and you need to cut the food into little bite-sized pieces. AAHHH!

    • Tyanne says:

      Heather, I am sorry to hear it is stressing you out! :)

      I recently had a friend also ask me about spices and other flavorings in the things I cook while using this method. I think that completely eliminating salt and sugar from everything is nearly impossible, but I do try to limit the amount in any given dish (it’s good for my entire family, as I have diabetes in my family and my husband has a heart condition). It helps immensely to make as many things from scratch as possible and utilize natural flavors within the fruits and vegetables you cook with, for example onions, peppers, and garlic cloves provide a lot of flavor without adding salt. I am curious at what age those particular sites suggested that salt and sugar were okay? I think in the early months of BLW for us, most of the foods he wanted to eat were the steamed vegetables I made as sides to our meal and fruits, which had no salt or sugar on them. I did allow him to try foods with salt and sugar in them, but he ingested so little of those foods prior to age one that I am not concerned about any adverse affects. I think that your best bet is to talk with your pediatrician and see what advice they have. Ours was completely supportive of us going about food in this way, and he did not show concern about the salt or sugar because he knows I am cautious to use those things in moderation.

      In terms of the choking advice, I did have some things that I cut into matchstick pieces, but others I went ahead with the bite-sized and watched him closely. I just used my best judgment and kept a close eye on him when introducing something new. He was particularly good at breaking things down and swallowing them very early, I think, and I know not all babies progress that quickly. Also, the more we watched his natural reflex to spit food out if he could not break it down, the less anxiety I had about letting him try a variety of things. Our pediatrician said that it was perfectly fine for him to be swallowing lumps and chunks of food if he was ready to do so, and sure enough he did more and more as he grew (we all do as we don’t chew our food down to mush before we swallow!) There is nothing wrong with pacing out new foods with your own comfort level, either! If you are to nervous about giving him a certain food, wait until you feel more confident. There were plenty of foods we waited to try with him until I was confident he could handle them for my own comfort level more than his. If you ever want to bounce questions off of me, just shoot me an email! I am no expert, but I might be able to calm your fears and encourage you while you do this. Before you know it, you’ll be through the introduction phase and feel like a natural!

  4. Lisa says:

    I definitely need to try this with the next baby. I found, with my younger children, that they were not really interested in food until 9 month or so. I breastfed them exclusively until that time… which felt like a pay-off after the rough-start with breastfeeding. :)

    Slightly off- topic, but prolonged breastfeeding can put fertility on hold for a good long time. I see this as a huge blessing from the Lord.. I wish more women knew about it. :)

    • Tyanne says:

      Lisa, I love to encourage those who are able to breastfeed to prolong it & I agree that it felt a bit like a pay-off after the bumpiness in the early months! In terms of baby-led weaning, it put me at ease to know that he was gaining all of his necessary nutrients from the breast-milk and I did not feel any pressure to see him ingest additional food. If there was a day when he was 13 or 14 months old that he didn’t eat well, I was comforted to know he had nursed several times that day and receive valuable nutrients that way.

      I have heard that breastfeeding can delay fertility, and I believe it might have for us. I know it is not always true for women, though, so plenty of women find themselves nursing while pregnant and even tandem nursing a toddler and a newborn together! Either way, I find it incredible how God has created the female body to function in these ways! Our bodies are truly divinely designed, and childbearing and breastfeeding are great evidence of that!

  5. Hailey White says:

    Great post!