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 way—and 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.