I am SO excited to have some pretty amazing mamas writing today’s post for us! Dietitian Megan McNamee MPH, RDN and Feeding Therapist Judy Delaware, OTR/L co-own Feeding Littles, a pediatric feeding company with online courses for parents of babies and young children. Megan and Judy help parents find joy in mealtime, manage picky eating, introduce foods to babies, and establish a healthy relationship with food using eating disorder prevention strategies. They administer a free Facebook group and provide information and resources on their Instagram page. Megan lives in Scottsdale, Arizona with her two young daughters and Judy has two children in their twenties and lives in Louisville, Colorado with her husband.
Feeding a baby can be one of the more overwhelming experiences of new parenthood. It takes time for parents and babies to get into their breastfeeding or bottle-feeding “groove,” and yet by around six months of age your sweet baby is likely showing signs that he or she is ready to try eating more than breast milk or formula. Just when you thought you had the feeding thing figured out, it changes yet again. Baby-led Weaning is an approach to feeding by which baby feeds himself or herself, starting at around 6 months of age. The term “weaning” is from the European use of the word and means “introduction of solid food,” not an abrupt weaning from the breast or bottle as it’s known in the United States. Thus, “baby-led weaning” literally means infant self-feeding.
Traditionally, babies are fed pureed food on a spoon by a parent and transition to thicker, lumpier textures over the course of a few months. This approach is sometimes referred to as “Traditional Weaning” or “Parent-led Weaning,” which is also started around 6 months of age. Interestingly, in Traditional Weaning finger foods are also recommended alongside purees around 6-7 months of age.
Thus, the difference between Baby-led Weaning and Traditional Weaning is that in Baby-led Weaning, babies aren’t fed directly by spoon by a caregiver, while babies doing Traditional Weaning are fed by a spoon for a short period of time until they transition to self-feeding all safe textures.
The goal of both Baby-led Weaning (BLW) and Traditional Weaning (TW) is the same: baby eats all safe textures and is self-feeding exclusively by no later than around 14 months, barring any medical or developmental issues. With BLW, baby skips eating purees off of a spoon and goes straight to soft, finger-length foods that they can pick up and bring to their own mouth. Think strips of avocado, softly cooked chicken, cooked broccoli spears, roasted sweet potatoes, etc. With BLW, there’s not transitioning off of purees fed by a caregiver on a spoon.
Parents love BLW because it’s easy – baby eats what you eat – and it honors baby’s inherent self-feeding skills. Our clients are amazed by how well their baby can manipulate a variety of safe textures and sizes, and many parents think it can prevent picky or selective eating in toddlerhood. Jury’s still out on that one as we await more research. Caregivers with older children especially love that they don’t have to make separate foods for baby or buy baby food. As long as baby can pick up the food served and it doesn’t contain honey, excess salt or any choking hazards, it’s OK for baby to eat.
As with all things parenting, some people are very dogmatic about BLW, and some misinformation surrounding the approach has begun to circulate in mom groups on Facebook. As feeding professionals of a combined 45 years of practice and moms ourselves, we want to share evidence- and practice-based information that will help you make the best feeding decisions for your family, while also honoring your own child – no dogma or rigidity required.
In this blog series of four posts, we will describe BLW, address common misconceptions, discuss how to get started and safety measures to take, and touch on common issues and troubleshooting. Since smart infant feeding is such a big topic, we have created an online video-based course to describe this process in full, including videos of 12 babies eating – and gagging – so you know exactly what to expect. It’s all the information you need in one concise resource, taken at your own pace. The entire program takes 90 minutes and can be watched while wearing your pajamas! Use code LYNZY for $10 off our BLW course at feedinglittles.com.
So, to get started, let’s address some common myths and realities.
Myth: If I want to do Traditional Weaning (spoon feeding), I should start at 4 months and then “switch” to BLW at 6 months.
Reality: No matter what texture food you offer, it is recommended to wait until “around 6 months” and when baby is showing readiness signs before starting foods. One of the hallmark readiness signs for feeding is sitting with minimal assistance on the floor for safety and developmental reasons. Very few 4-months-olds are sitting on the floor unassisted. Additional readiness signs include bringing toys and hands to mouth, grabbing toys accurately, leaning slightly forward in a chair, and following a slow moving object with their eyes. (These last two readiness signs are more acknowledged in the professional feeding community.)
Furthermore, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization, approximately 6 months is a more appropriate time to start solid foods given the research available on feeding.
Furthermore, starting with spoon feeding and then switching to finger-length soft foods a la Baby-led Weaning is technically “Traditional Weaning” and isn’t “switching to BLW.” In the end, semantics don’t matter, but some parents get confused that Traditional Weaning involves spoon feeding indefinitely, when in fact it’s starting with spoon feeding and transitioning to finger foods. It was never meant to mean spoon feeding forever.
Myth: Babies need teeth to chew food.
Reality: Babies shouldn’t chew with their front teeth – those are used for biting. If we waited until baby popped all of his or her molars we wouldn’t give real food until they were 2 or 3 years of age, which is far too long to wait for foods in their whole form. Babies have strong gums, and their teeth are located just below the gumline. As long as the food isn’t hard or a choking hazard, baby can gum and chew on all safe textures.
Myth: My baby will choke if I give her real food.
Reality: As long as baby is not given choking hazards like whole nuts, raw apples or carrots, uncut grapes, popcorn, chips etc., BLW does not increase the risk of choking over TW. The gag reflex is protective of your baby’s airway as long as baby is sitting well and not leaning back while eating. Thus, at the beginning of the BLW journey, baby may gag a lot and as he or she learns how to bring food to the side of their mouth and chew. Offering long teething toys like the Fluxy, NumNum GOOtensils (technically a feeding spoon but great for teething), Zoli teethers or the Como Tomo teether can help baby discover his or her gag reflex and learn to bite with their back molar space. We want gagging to improve with practice.
Myth: It is unsafe to spoon feed and let baby self-feed at the same time. This is sometimes known as “combo feeding.”
Reality: This is a common Internet myth that is not backed by science. In fact, this is exactly how Traditional Weaning starts – baby is spoon-fed but also is offered soft finger foods as early as 6-7 months of age. If we thought that spoon-feeding and offering finger foods together was an issue, we would know by now. Plus, how else would TW babies switch off spoon-feeding to self-feeding?
Myth: I should wait until my baby develops a pincer grasp to offer him non-pureed food.
A baby’s pincer grasp doesn’t usually refine fully until 10-12 months. Yes, babies may be able to manipulate smaller pieces of food with other less sophisticated grasps, but placing the end of the index finger and the end of the thumb does not usually happen until closer to the end of infancy. If we waited that long to offer food we would miss a critical developmental feeding window. Babies can pick up stick-shaped pieces of food and bring them to their mouths as early as around 6 months, no pincer grasp or palmar release required. Learn more about how to help your baby develop their pincer grasp – starting from birth – here.
Myth: Food before 1 is just for fun.
Reality: The sentiment of this phrase is great, but many parents take it to mean that exposure to food before one is unimportant. This could not be further from the truth. We are in favor of smart, responsive feeding and love extended breastfeeding if it works for mom and baby. However, breast milk (or formula) will not sustain your baby forever. If you wait until 1 to introduce foods (unless required for medical or developmental reasons), you greatly increase risk of feeding difficulties and potential iron deficiency. Plus, we know that allergenic food introduction around 6 months of age is critical for allergy prevention in low-risk babies.
Food exposure around the middle of infancy is critical for prevention of iron-deficiency anemia and zinc deficiency, allergy prevention, development of oral-motor, fine motor and large motor skills, sensory exploration, speech development, and understanding the social experience of eating with family at the table. Sure, baby may not ingest much food for a few months, but we need to give them the opportunity to practice and try.
Yes, breast milk and formula cover most of their nutritional needs until 1, but we want babies learning how to eat real food. It’s a skill they have to practice. We consistently see greater feeding success with babies who have more practice eating after 6 months of age, as long as they’re also getting enough breast milk or formula (at last 24+ oz a day). So yes, keep breastfeeding and bottle-feeding on demand, enjoy those sweet milky, toothless smiles, and don’t stress if baby misses a solids meal, but bring them to the table when they’re showing readiness signs. There’s a reason they become so interested in what you’re eating, start to sit up, and can bring things to their mouth by around 6 months. Doing Baby-led Weaning means following baby’s lead, and most babies are really interested in eating and the food you’re holding by around 6 months.
In our next posts we will delve more into BLW, including how to do it and safety considerations. We administer a free Facebook Group for support in any type of feeding (including breastfeeding and bottle feeding), and if you want to dive into BLW with confidence we suggest taking our online, video-based infant course. Use code LYNZY for $10 off!