Baby led weaning is such a great tool for parents to have access to when it comes to weaning their babies. But before you start, there are a few things that are helpful to know!
Think of baby led weaning as a tool in your tool box to help your child have a healthy relationship with food. It can help to naturally encourage your child to pay attention to their own hunger cues right from the beginning, which is exactly what we’re looking for.
The baby led part of the name means exactly that, your baby is the one deciding how much they want to eat of what you serve. There’s no “just one more bite” happening. It can help to take the pressure off of you, and really encourage you to take a step back with regards to feeding.
As great of a tool as baby led weaning is, it’s not a magic pill. It will not change your baby’s natural body composition. Nor would we want it to. At one point people thought that by encouraging a healthy relationship with food it would prevent childhood obesity. Research has shown that that’s not the case, though. (ref) And that’s ok!
The goal of a healthy relationship with food is that your child is able to listen to their own internal hunger cues. That, in combination with being served nutritious foods in a relaxed environment is what we’re looking for with feeding our children. Whether they are above the normal weight or not isn’t something that needs to come into the picture.
Contrary to what many people think, baby led weaning actually has no higher risk of choking than serving purees with traditional weaning. (ref) The key here is knowing the difference between gagging and choking. Babies will gag. It’s an important part of developing eating skills, and not a bad thing to have happen.
As scary as it can be for parents, being informed of the difference, and what you need to do in the rare case of actual choking, can make a world of difference. But expect gagging! Know that the number of times it happens will drastically decrease as they practice their eating skills.
“Food before one is just for fun” is a common phrase that’s tossed around in discussions of feeding your baby. But food before one is not just for fun! I agree with the sentiment behind it that in your baby’s first year there is a lot of leeway for amounts eaten because breastmilk or formula is the primary source of nutrition. But there are a few things that as your baby grows breastmilk does not have enough of. You need to start augmenting with solid foods to help ensure your baby is getting everything they need.
The main nutrient we’re concerned with is iron, as iron deficiency can cause irreversible harm to your baby’s brain development. Many babies also need additional calories as they grow. For a full breakdown of how to plan a balanced plate, check out my starting solids guide.
Keep in mind that regardless of the age of your child, it is never a part of your job description to force them to eat something or determine exactly how much of what you serve they will eat. That in and of itself can take off some of the pressure when starting solid foods. Your job is to let your baby lead when it comes to how much they want to eat. (For more on this concept, check out this post!)
I’ve heard many different takes on this across mommy forums. But bottom line is that when it comes to baby led weaning, texture still matters! You can’t just serve exactly what you’re eating. It’s a lot closer than a pureed food is to what you’re eating, but it isn’t exactly your food. You will need to make modifications so that the food is smooshable between your thumb and forefinger. This is one of the main things that makes baby led weaning safe and of no greater choking risk than purees! Especially when first starting out, this really is one of the golden rules that need to be followed.
The size of the food that you serve is important as well. Although when it comes to size every baby is different and will like different things. Modifying the texture of foods is important for safety, but the size of foods tend to be more about making it easy for your baby to pick them up and self-feed.
When a baby is just starting to eat around 6 months they don’t have a pincer grasp yet, which is the ability to pick things up between their thumb and forefinger. They’re still using a palmar grasp where they rake things into their palm to eat. This is why providing food in adult finger size shapes can help your baby to pick it up and get it into their mouth- much smaller and it can be hard to pick up and release into their mouth.
As they practice though, they will get better and will develop the pincer grasp. That’s when you can start to make their foods smaller! (Check out this post to learn what to look for before advancing to smaller sizes and harder textures.)
Let’s get this out of the way. It will be messy! Maybe slightly messier than weaning your baby using purees, but think of it as getting the majority of the mess out of the way at the beginning. On top of that, letting your baby get messy when eating is an important part of development. It gets them used to touching different textures and having things on their face, which can help with food acceptance down the road. Get a plan in place for dealing with the mess, and then just let it happen!
While you can expose your baby to the majority of foods right off the bat (barring allergies, of course), there are a few that you want to avoid or limit. The number one thing to avoid is honey, in all shapes and forms. This is due to the risk of botulism.
You also want to avoid all sweeteners as much as possible. It is just not a necessary part of their diet, and can set their palates up to prefer sweets more than we’d like as they grow.
Last, you want to severely restrict their salt intake. Your baby’s kidneys are immature and really can’t handle the amount of salt that we use in our own food. It’s best to avoid salt whenever possible, and buy foods that have very minimal salt in them from the store. (Learn more about the things to avoid here.)
When it comes down to it, whether you use baby led weaning or traditional weaning, it’s not the style of food that matters. At the end of the day, the most important thing with feeding is the environment! Baby led weaning naturally incorporates a responsive style of feeding. This is where we can see a lot of the benefits from baby led weaning. But that doesn’t mean that you are completely out of luck if you choose to traditionally wean. Letting your baby lead the way when it comes to feeding is the way to go regardless of the food you choose to feed!
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