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Many milestones occur during a baby’s first year of life, including starting solid foods. But when and how are you supposed to do this? According to IFIC’s Consumer Survey for Birth to 24 Months, 24% of parents report concerns about when to introduce solid foods. While there are a couple methods of transitioning your baby to solids, one option is growing in popularity— baby-led weaning.
- What is weaning?
- Baby-Led Weaning vs Traditional Weaning
- Benefits of baby-led weaning
- What does the research say about baby led weaning?
- How do I know when my baby is ready for weaning?
- When can you start baby-led eating?
- Do doctors recommend baby-led weaning?
- Can you mix purees and baby-led weaning?
- Can you switch from purees to BLW?
- What are the pros and cons of baby-led weaning?
What is weaning?
Before we dive into baby-led weaning, let’s talk about weaning in general. Weaning is the time when infants transition from breastfeeding or infant formula to solid foods.1 The process is not immediate, but incremental. Solid food introduction often happens around four to six months but depends on a lot of different factors. When to wean is a personal decision and will be different for everyone.
Baby-Led Weaning vs Traditional Weaning
Traditional baby weaning involves introducing solid foods to babies via spoon-feeding. This often happens as mothers slowly decrease breastfeeding or infant formula feeding and begin to increase solid foods.2
Baby-led weaning, on the other hand, involves parents offering finger foods (with babies feeding themselves!) right from the start.
Yes, you read that right— baby-led weaning entails a baby being offered solid foods for self-feeding, with no help from an adult.
When to start your baby on solid foods:
The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend starting solid foods sometime around six months of age. These foods are called complementary foods because they complement the breast milk or formula that your baby is still consuming. Remember, breast milk or formula is still the most important food for your infant during the first year of life. Complementary solid foods are meant to ensure your baby receives adequate nutrition and has exposure to new flavors, textures and types of foods.
Babies may be ready to add solid foods to their diet if they:
- are able to control their head and neck
- are able to hold their head up by themselves
- do not push food out of their mouth with their tongue
- sit up alone or with support
- try to grasp small objects, such as toys or food
- swallow food rather than pushing it back out onto the chin
Benefits of baby-led weaning
Baby-led weaning can create simpler, more positive family feeding experiences because babies eat with the family instead of separately. This style of infant feeding is meant to encourage self-regulation as babies are given a chance to explore the tastes and textures of food, while developing the ability to stop when full. Baby-led weaning also supports the development of hand-eye coordination, chewing and other motor skills.
What does the research say about baby led weaning?
While more research is needed, one systematic review critically examined the current evidence about the baby-led weaning approach and assessed whether or not it is safe and advisable for parents and babies. Twelve articles (ten observational cross-sectional studies and two randomized controlled trials) were included.
The results are summarized below and answer questions like: Can baby-led weaning cause choking? And, is baby-led weaning better than spoon-feeding? Here’s what the research has taught us:
Choking: According to IFIC’s Consumer Survey for Birth to 24 Months, 55% of parents’ reported concerns about choking hazards when first introducing their child to solid foods. One study on weaning style found no differences in choking incidence between BLW and traditional weaning groups.3 4
Adequate energy intake and normal growth: While total energy intake was similar between a BLW and a traditionally spoon-fed group of infants, BLW infants seemed to consume more total fat and saturated fat than traditionally spoon-fed infants.5
One randomized study showed no differences in energy intake between the BLW group and the traditionally spoon-fed control group.6 The researchers noted that this BLW group was modified to address concerns about iron deficiency.
Results showed the baby-led approach to complementary feeding did not result in more appropriate BMI than traditional spoon-feeding, although BLW children were reported to have less food fussiness.
Risk of inadequate iron intake: BLW infants may be at risk of inadequate iron intake because iron-rich foods can be challenging for babies to eat on their own. Foods that are easier for babies to self-feed, like mashed fruits or cooked vegetables are often low in iron.7
Food preferences and diet quality: It has been hypothesized that BLW may promote the acceptance of more types of food due to a baby’s exposure to a wider range of tastes and textures. One study found no differences in food preferences between BLW and traditionally weaned infants.8 Conversely, another study observed that BLW-weaned children preferred carbohydrates, whereas spoon-fed infants preferred sweets.3
Family relationships: It has been proposed that BLW children may participate in mealtimes more easily than traditionally spoon-fed children because they eat the same foods as the rest of the family. While parents offered their children 57% of the same foods they were consuming, BLW did not improve or change the family’s dietary intake.9
Complementary feeding start time: According to data, mothers choosing to follow a baby-led approach appeared more likely to begin complementary feeding at six months of age. 10 Data derived from randomized trials are lacking.
Mothers’ anxiety and attitude: Baby-led mothers reported lower anxiety, lower obsessive-compulsive disorder scores, lower eating restraints and higher conscientiousness than traditional weaning mothers.11
These maternal characteristics might make a BLW approach more feasible; however, this finding may also be explained by the fact that mothers high in anxiety may be more likely to choose a traditional weaning approach.
Frequently asked questions about baby-led weaning
Amna Husain, MD, FAAP, and Bobbie Medical Expert, answers your FAQ’s about baby-led weaning:
Can you start baby-led weaning at 4 months?
I recommend waiting until the age of six months to begin baby-led weaning to reduce the risk of choking.
How do I know when my baby is ready for weaning?
Typically, I recommend looking for developmental readiness signs, or signs that your baby is ready to start eating solid foods. Developmental readiness signs include head control, sitting upright, loss of tongue thrust reflex and interest in watching what others eat. We typically begin seeing signs of developmental readiness around four to six months of age, but this is not a hard limit.
When can you start baby-led eating?
Ideally, I recommend beginning baby-led weaning around six months of age so your child can reach their nutritional requirements. Typically around this age, it becomes more difficult to reach nutritional requirements, mainly zinc and iron levels, solely from breastmilk or formula.
Can I start baby-led weaning at 5 months?
I recommend waiting until the age of six months to begin baby-led weaning to reduce the risk of choking.
Do doctors recommend baby-led weaning?
How you choose to introduce solids to your baby is based on your preference. Spoon-feeding, baby-led weaning and introduction to purees are all great options on how to introduce solids to your little one. Regardless of which approach you choose, I do recommend introducing finger foods between eight and ten months of age.
Can you mix purees and baby-led weaning?
In my opinion, you can certainly combine both methods while still reaping the benefits of both.
Can you switch from purees to BLW?
You can certainly switch up the method when introducing solids to your little one. Again, it’s mainly based on preference. However, around eight to ten months of age I generally recommend the incorporation of more finger foods into their diet.
Is baby-led weaning better than spoon-feeding?
No one method is better than the other. Which method is best for your child is really dependent on personal preference and your baby’s reaction to the method.
Do babies need teeth for led weaning?
Not necessarily! More importantly, they need to have loss of tongue thrust reflex. Parents and caregivers must still be cautious about food textures given lack of teeth. For example, I counsel parents on “if you can squish it between your fingers, it should be ok to give!”
What are the pros and cons of baby-led weaning?
Baby-led weaning can encourage independence during meals and encourage the development of motor and oral skills. Some families also find it easier to dine out.
As with any baby-led method, it can get messy quickly! There is also potential for an increase in food waste, especially if your child has a tendency to throw food on the floor.
Can baby-led weaning cause choking?
True choking occurs when your baby’s airway is obstructed and he/she is having trouble breathing. Signs of choking include the inability to cry, high-pitched sounds, and even a change in color to blue or purple. Gagging is a natural reflex that prevents choking. When your child is gagging it’s important for them to work through the gag. You can certainly help them work through the gag by acting out the motions of spitting out food.
Summary of baby-led weaning versus traditional spoon feeding
In summary, more research is needed to draw clear conclusions about baby-led weaning. Still, this approach to weaning may work for some families, and it’s best to talk with your healthcare provider if you have specific questions or concerns.
Plus, know that your approach to weaning doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. It’s possible to combine traditional spoon feeding with baby-led weaning. As always, it’s most important to find a style that works for you, your baby and your family.