Weaning is the gradual process that your baby goes through when they transition from having only breast milk or formula to having no breast milk or formula at all. It doesn’t happen overnight. Yet, you can ease the process by understanding the do’s and don’ts.
There are many ways to introduce your baby to solids. While there are some guidelines to follow, there’s a lot of room for choice too. Whether starting your baby with traditional purées or going for baby-led weaning, you do you, mama.
How Baby-Led Weaning Works
Baby-led weaning is a different type of weaning. With baby-led weaning, babies don’t need to be spoon-fed soft foods. Instead, they feed themselves. There are many different ways to do baby-led weaning.
Generally, the baby sits with the rest of the family at mealtimes and joins in when they are ready. The baby is encouraged to explore different foods, which are offered in pieces that are the just-right size and shape for their little hands.
Benefits of Baby-Led Weaning
There are many benefits to baby-led weaning. One of the major ones is that babies can participate in family meals right from the start, learning to love the same foods that their moms, dads, brothers, sisters and other important people already enjoy.
This encourages them to eat a variety of foods that they otherwise might not try and sets them up for a lifetime of exploring new and delicious foods.
Moms and dads also get the joy of watching their babies respond to a full range of food, including all kinds of meats and vegetables. And, when eating becomes a family event, parents have an added incentive to keep their own eating habits healthy.
Babies also learn hand-eye coordination and chewing skills by feeding themselves. Plus, they get the confidence that comes with the freedom to exercise a bit of control over their diets.
Baby-led weaning also involves nutritious milk feedings that continue while your baby transitions to solids at their own pace. Breast milk is rich in protein, sugar, vitamins and minerals, as well as bioactive components that fight infections and help your baby’s growth and development, so continuing feedings support their health.
When to Start Baby-Led Weaning
At about six months, babies are ready to discover solid food for themselves. You may see signs that your baby is ready to get started when they try to grab food from the table.
Before starting solid food, your baby should have reached some key milestones. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, they should be able to sit upright in a highchair or feeding chair with good head control.
Your baby should also have the ability to move food to the back of their throat and swallow it on their own (remember that they’ve never had anything thicker than breast milk). Babies should also have doubled their birth weight or weigh at least 13 pounds.
How to Start Baby-Led Weaning
Once you’ve determined that your baby is ready to start baby-led weaning, get started by including them at mealtime and giving them access to foods to try. Don’t worry if your baby’s first experiences with baby-led weaning involve them eating very little. Let your baby go at their own pace.
When your baby is between six and eight months old, try introducing foods two or three times a day. As your baby grows older, you can try increasing the amount of food that you offer daily.
Experts recommend offering a variety of foods to your baby and letting them choose. There are many recipe books available, too, including cookbooks by baby-led weaning pioneer Gill Rapley, and many suggested baby-led weaning starter foods.
The Do’s of Baby-Led Weaning
Because it’s flexible and intuitive, it’s pretty easy to get baby-led weaning right. Here are some key things that you’ll want to plan for.
Create a Peaceful, Pressure-Free Eating Environment
Baby-led weaning is all about introducing food in a way that’s stress-free for you and your baby. Many parents do this by including the baby in mealtime and feeding them the same foods that the rest of the family is eating.
It’s okay if you only offer some of the food at the table, or if some food is seasoned for the baby while other food is seasoned for the rest of the family. It’s also okay if your baby doesn’t want to eat. Encourage them but don’t force things. Remember that your baby is still getting great nutrition from breastmilk or formula.
Sit Baby Upright
Babies should be seated upright and supported while eating. It’s also best to try to minimize distractions for you and your baby.
Have Your Baby Self-Feed With Pieces of Food That Are Just the Right Size
With baby-led weaning, baby’s first foods should be offered in a way that your baby can handle easily. For many families, this means cutting food up into small bits that babies can grab.
Be Prepared to Clean
Baby-led weaning can be messy, and that’s fine! Especially at the beginning, be prepared for the fact that very little food will actually make its way into your baby’s mouth.
You may need to plan for bathtime immediately after mealtime. Eventually, you’ll probably develop many different strategies for minimizing mess, from favorite styles of bibs to carefully timing outfit changes or even having your baby wear only a diaper at the table.
Offer Plenty of Choices
Just like you, your baby will likely have favorite foods and not-so-favorite foods. By offering a variety at every meal, you’re helping to make mealtime fun and interesting for your baby. You’re also helping to set your baby up for a lifetime of adventurous and healthy eating.
The Don’ts of Baby-Led Weaning
Is baby-led weaning safe? It’s a common question. Research studies have found that baby-led introduction to solids does not pose more of a choking risk than introducing food through spoon-feeding purées. Still, choking is common and can be scary. So, it’s important to avoid the don’ts of baby-led weaning.
Don’t Put Food in Your Baby’s Mouth
Baby-led weaning is about giving your baby the freedom to try new foods, as well as building the developmental skills that come with self-feeding. And putting food in your baby’s mouth can pose a choking risk.
Don’t Pressure Your Baby to Eat More or Less
Just like us, babies are born with the natural ability to sense when they are hungry or full. If you pressure your baby to eat more and thereby override the natural queues their body is sending them, you may be setting them up for a lifetime of overeating. If you pressure your baby to eat less, you may be depriving your baby of key nutrition they should be getting from their food.
Don’t Be Distracted or Encourage Distraction
When doing baby-led weaning, keep it about the food. Distractions, like having the TV on, can take your attention away from your baby, which can be dangerous. Babies are also naturally curious and easily distracted, especially as they get older.
With so much to see and do, you might find that your baby is simply too curious about the world to get a full meal in. Try to minimize those distractions so your baby can concentrate on the food.