Baby-led Weaning: A Real Food Approach to Feeding Your Baby

Baby-led weaning is the practice of trusting your baby’s innate sense of hunger, of want, of self-knowledge and of self-limitation. Baby-led weaning offers parents and their children a natural, relaxed approach to the introduction of solid foods and the eventual cessation of breastfeeding. Instead of relying on prepared, commercial baby foods or even homemade purees, mothers and fathers simply introduce their babies to natural, wholesome real food from the start – relying on their babies to self-regulate and lead the way.

Baby-led Weaning: Our Family’s Experience

At six and a half months, my exclusively breastfed son seemed to take an interest in food and exhibited other signs of readiness. So, like any dutifully crunchy mother holding true to her naturalistic ideals, I began preparing mashes and purees like a madwoman. I mashed avocados and bananas into a slick, lumpy green goop. I blended roast butternut squash and spooned it neatly into ice cube trays – two tablespoons, a perfect serving! I pureed blueberries until they’d stain your skin a vibrant purple if you just looked at them the wrong way. When it came time to feeding my son, we’d stretch out a blanket or sheet on the floor, sit him in its center and start spoon-feeding him from the little pots of colorful slop I’d so dutifully prepared.  If I knew then what I now know about first foods, I’d have started him on easier to digest and more nutrient-dense foods like egg yolk and liver which, due to their easy-to-assimilate nutrients, make for some of the best first foods.

It was a disaster.

He’d laugh and giggle as I spooned blueberry puree into his mouth, sending bits of purple flying. He’d dig his hands into the butternut squash and paint his torso a vivid orange. And, occasionally, he’d grimace or gag as I’d plop mashed avocado into his mouth with a spoon. Within a few days, spoon-feeding my baby boy became a power struggle (have I explained to you how extraordinarily obstinate my child is, and was for the get-go?); he wanted to do it himself, dammit. And why shouldn’t he? After all, I certainly wouldn’t appreciate someone spooning strange goopy mashes into my mouth.

It was about this time that I stumbled across the concept of baby-led weaning, an approach to solid foods that simply made sense. Rather than my spoon-feeding our son, we’d simply follow his own interests and cues and allow him to feed himself real food from the start. No more purees. No more mashes. No more bits of blueberry shooting like little purple missiles from a grimacing mouth.  (Learn more about how I’ve nourished my child.)

A baby-led approach starts at the breast.

Baby-lead weaning is a natural approach to solid foods and to feeding your baby in general, and it starts at the breast. When you breastfeed your child, you rely on your baby to let you know when he or she is hungry and you allow your baby to self-regulate his or her eating patterns – feeding your baby on demand. This level of innate parent-child connection and your trust in your baby’s ability to self-regulate based on his or her own hunger is the essence and foundation of baby-led weaning.

Feeding by bottle presents challenges to the baby-led approach, which is not to say it cannot be a nurturing method of feeding your baby or that baby-led weaning will not be successful for mothers who must bottle feed their babies for whatever reason. Bottles drip into the mouths of babies making it difficult for babies to self-regulate intake (a critical aspect of the baby-led approach). As I returned to work full-time at 6 weeks post-partum, my son was fed expressed breast milk by bottle and baby-led weaning still worked for our family.  Researchers into baby-led weaning strongly encourage breastfeeding as the foundation for this unique, natural approach to the introduction of solid foods which is not to say that you cannot follow a baby-led approach to solids if you are bottle-feeding your baby; indeed, many mothers have successfully employed both methods.

Signs of Readiness

In many cases, parents introduce solid foods to their babies far too early – with some parents feeding industrially processed rice cereal as early as four weeks. Others rely on stated dates and ages for the introduction of solid foods – thinking they must start solids at six months, no earlier and no later.

We all know that different children reach milestones at different ages. Sure, most babies take their first steps at around a year old, but some will take them as early as eleven months and others as late as eighteen months. Why should a child’s readiness for solid foods be any different? Instead, watch your baby for signs that he or she may be ready to try solid foods.  Babies do not need to exhibit all signs before they may be ready for solid foods, but growing interest in family meal time and the loss of the tongue-thrust reflex are very good indicators.  Most babies exhibit these signs at about six months, with some exhibiting readiness as early as four months and others exhibiting readiness slightly later.  Avoiding the introduction of solid foods past signs of readiness which typically occur around six months may result in pickiness in toddlerhood and caloric intake that is too low for the developing child; you really should trust your baby and follow the signs that he or she is ready.

Signs for readiness for solid foods include the following1:

  • Your baby shows interest in food and family meal times.
  • Your baby can sit without support.
  • Your baby has lost the tongue-thrust reflex (pushing solid foods out of the front of the mouth).
  • Your baby is ready and willing to chew (though he or she may not have many teeth).
  • Your baby can pick up items with the thumb and forefinger (pincer grasp) as opposed to using the whole hand (palmar grasp).

The Role of Solid Foods in the First Year

The role of solid foods in the first year is not about calories and macronutrients like carbohydrate, protein and fat, which is not to say that the nutrient content of your baby’s foods is unimportant.  Breast milk serves this role – providing ample nutrients and wholesome fats, particularly if the mother is well-nourished.  For women who are unable to breastfeed, either by physical limitations or lack of social and medical support, donor milk from a well-nourished mother or a high-quality formula should provide the bulk of nourishment.  Some who have suffered these difficulties and cannot find adequate donor milk choose to make their own formula, and none take that choice lightly.

Instead, the role of solid foods is to introduce your baby to varying flavors, aromas and textures of food.  Something that’s not accomplished when you rely exclusively or even largely on mashes and purees.  With baby-led weaning, children typically skip the mashes and purees, cereals and classic baby foods and start directly on the foods their parents consume (provided their parents consume nutrient-dense real foods) – enjoying the full range of textures, flavors and nuances of food from the very beginning.  However, for some families, allowing the baby to self-feed from soft mashes and purees is an effective tool in the beginning.

The Baby-led Approach to Weaning

The key to baby-led weaning is to enjoy a relaxed approach – know that your baby will receive adequate nutrition through nursing.  You don’t need to purchase expensive prepackaged baby foods, nor equipment for making them at home; rather, simply prepare real food from wholesome natural ingredients and serve them to your family – baby included.  Let your baby pick up, mash, taste, sample and explore the foods your family would normally eat during regular meal times.  Be vigilant in watching your baby explore foods, but do not be too concerned about choking as babies are thought not to be capable of moving food from the front of the mouth to the back until they learn to chew – an evolutionary fail-safe, if you will2.

Tips for Baby-led Weaning3

  • Do NOT serve small, tiny pieces of food.
  • Serve large chunks that can be easily grasped.
  • Make  sure your baby is capable of sitting on his or her own and is well-supported.  If your baby cannot sit on his or her own but still expresses other signs of readiness including the loss of the tongue-thrust reflex and is interested in meal time, you may wish to provide your baby with purees and mashes from which to choose.
  • Offer your baby the same foods you’re eating so that your baby feels included in the family meal.
  • Know that your baby may not actually eat any of the food presented; rather, baby-led weaning is about exploration.  He or she will eventually learn to eat.
  • Don’t hurry or rush your baby – after all, do you like to be rushed while eating?
  • Make sure you only offer wholesome, natural foods (no added refined salts, flours, sugars, oils).
  • It will be messy, be prepared and relax a bit.
  • Steer away from foods that are clearly dangerous for young persons (peanuts, chips, popcorn etc).
  • Steer away from highly allergenic foods like egg white and nuts as well as those foods that are contraindicated for babies like honey.
  • Talk to your baby’s health care provider about this approach to weaning.

Traditional First Foods for Babies

First foods should be nutrient-dense.  Grains tend to be difficult to digest for small digestive tracts – so avoid introducing them until your child is at least 18 months old.  Iron-fortified cereal is not necessary first food (learn more about iron deficiency in the breastfed baby).  The Weston A Price Foundation recommends a mixture of liver and egg yolk as a good first food which is very dense in nutrients.  Oceanic tribes typically started babies on liver, fish and grubs.  Polynesians started babies on breadfruit and coconut cream.  Japanese mothers traditionally started their babies on a thin gruel of milled rice, fish, fish roe and mashed pumpkin.   In Latin America, traditional foods often include liver and well-cooked chayote in broth. In western societies, first foods often include liver, roasted bone marrow and soft cooked egg yolks.  In some cultures, mothers prechew foods into a fine pulp before feeding babies.  The take away is that all societies fed their babies nutrient-dense traditional foods, and what the parents also consumed.

Resources for Baby-led Weaning

  • In her book Real Food for Mother & Baby, author Nina Planck discusses her experiences with the baby-led approach to solids at length.
  • In Baby-led Weaning, author and researcher Gill Rapley provides a solid look at the practice of baby-led weaning.
  • In the article Including Baby at the Family Table, nutritionist Jen Allbriton discusses traditional first foods for babies and how to include your baby at meal time.

When to Stop Breastfeeding

Remember, for the first year of life breast milk should be the primary source of nutrition, and you should continue to nurse your child until he or she reaches the age of two at the very least.  Continue to trust your child, allowing him or her to self-wean when he or she is ready to do so.  Self-weaning rarely occurs before the age of two and usually occurs between the ages of three and four with some children exhibiting a desire to nurse longer.  My son self-weaned at 3 ½ years of age.  Child-led weaning is a natural extension of baby-led solids – as it employs your full trust in your child’s ability to recognize and respond to his or her own needs.  By nursing until your child is ready to wean, you know that you’ve fully satisfied your child’s need for the nurturing and nutrition provided by mother’s milk.

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