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What is baby-led weaning?

Baby eating vegetables as part of baby-led weaningIf you’re thinking about starting your baby on solid food you might assume that spoon-feeding them pureed foods is always the first step. But there is another way and its proponents say it will help ward off fussy eating, help a baby’s development and save you time in the kitchen!

So here’s everything you need to know about baby-led weaning

What is baby-led weaning?

Baby-led weaning is a method of starting solid food that encourages a baby to feed him or herself rather than be spoon-fed. Many parents do this without even thinking about it but the term ‘baby-led weaning’ was coined by author and midwife Jill Rapley in her 2008 book of the same name. The book popularised the idea, which does away with the view that babies must be weaned onto solids via pureed and mashed foods.

Can a baby really feed themself?

The current recommendation* is that babies start on solid food when they are developmentally ready, around six months of age. At this age, babies do have the co-ordination to be able to grasp food and move it to their mouth. They should also have lost the extrusion reflex, which automatically pushes food out of their mouth. By feeding themselves they are practicing these skills over and over again, which is an important for the development of their fine motor skills.

How do you start baby-led weaning?

To start baby-led weaning all you need to do is offer your baby easy-to-hold soft foods. Some ideas are steamed carrot sticks (soft enough that you can squish them between your fingers) or bits of banana (you can gently squeeze a banana to separate into three segments – the perfect size for a baby to hold). You don’t have to spend time in the kitchen cooking and pureeing extra food for your little one and you can sit them at the table when you and the family are eating and offer them suitable foods from the meal.

READ: More information about when your baby should start eating solid food

What does baby-led weaning offer babies?

Baby-led weaning gives a baby more control over what he or she is eating. You can offer a range of healthy foods and allow them to pick out what they like. It gives them a chance to explore and play with food – experimenting with texture and shape. They get to see food for what it is – rather than as an indistinguishable mash or puree. It also offers a baby a chance to practice their hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills as they learn to pick up foods and bring them to their mouth. Baby-led wearing advocates say that this method of feeding can help prevent fussy eating.

Is there a downside to baby-led weaning?

The downside is the mess. Letting a young baby feed themselves is not going to be mess-free but while you’re watching them squish banana into their hair just remember that it is all part of their development and is doing them the world of good. As they get older and more coordinated there will be less mess.

READ: For tips on coping with the mess see Starting Solids – A Survival Guide for Parents

What about gagging and choking?

Babies will gag when starting solid food, especially when finger food is introduced (whether you’re baby-led weaning or not) so it is very important to know the difference between gagging and choking.  Basically, choking is life-threatening and gagging is a very handy reflex our bodies have to prevent it. The gag reflex is your body’s way of moving food from the back of your throat to the front, to AVOID choking.

When a baby is gagging on their food they’ll be making noise and looking like they’re dry heaving or about to bring up their food (and occasionally they will!). While it can be distressing to see this, it is important you watch carefully to see how their body manages to manipulate the food back into a safe position.

If a baby is choking they’ll be distressed, silent and unable to breathe. Choking requires immediate action – another good reason parents should do a basic first aid course. To help prevent choking you should avoid foods that are choking hazards (hard raw fruits and vegetables, whole nuts, whole grapes), closely supervise your child while they are eating and make sure they are sitting upright and not distracted.

READ: For more information see our article on the difference between gagging and choking

Important things to remember when baby-led weaning

  • Baby-led weaning is about HOW you give the food, not what you give or when you give it. This means that you should still look to current guidelines for guidance on when to start and what to give.
  • The current advice* is that babies start solid food when they’re developmentally ready, around six months.
  • The current advice* also recommends that babies are offered a wide range of nutritious food. Food can be introduced in any order as long as iron-rich foods are included and the food is of a texture appropriate to the baby’s developmental stage.
  • To ensure iron-rich foods are part of your baby’s diet you can offer egg (perhaps scrambled eggs or an omelette cut into easy to pick up pieces), meat (mince or other soft easy to eat meats) and steamed dark leafy vegetables.
  • In terms of allergy prevention, the current advice (whether spoon-feeding or baby-led weaning) is that babies should start solid food around six months and not before four months of age. There is evidence to suggest that common allergenic foods (cooked eggs, peanuts butter, wheat, fish etc) should NOT be delayed.**
READ: See our article on food allergies in babies for the most current advice on allergy prevention.
  • Spoons are OK! You don’t have to offer your baby a diet of finger food only – some things just have to be eaten using a spoon. Yoghurt isn’t a finger food (though, try telling my kids that when they were little!). If giving your child foods that is best eaten with a spoon, trying letting them self-feed. There are many benefits to teaching your child how to use cutlery.
  • Used in this context, the word ‘weaning’ does not mean stopping baby’s milk feeds. Solid food is not meant to replace breast milk or formula. Your baby still needs breast milk and/or infant formula along with solids until at least 12 months. This will be the main source of nutrition until then, so before then make sure that solid food is fun with plenty of opportunities to taste and experiment with a range of healthy and nutritious food options – setting them up for a lifetime of healthy eating!
READ: Everything you need to know about starting solids in our Starting Solids Hub

*Infant Feeding Guidelines NHMRC 2012
** The Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA)  Infant Feeding Advice and Guidelines for Allergy Prevention in Infants 2016

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