Baby-Led Weaning: A Comprehensive Guide to First Baby Foods

Published May 2, 2022
By Renae D'Andrea

Learn about the increasingly popular way to introduce solid foods to your baby called Baby Led Weaning, or BLW, how to do it, and whether you can combine feeding methods and serve your baby pureed foods too.

What is Baby Led Weaning?

Baby led weaning is a style of introducing solid foods that skips the standard baby food you find in grocery stores and that we all think of when it comes to feeding babies.

Instead, you go straight to feeding babies soft finger foods.

More: Did you know that babies don't actually need to be fed pureed foods? If you wait until your baby is developmentally ready for solid food, then finger foods are what it is developmentally appropriate to start them with!

Why is BLW beneficial?

The gold standard for feeding babies, according to places like the American Academy of Pediatrics, is to use a method called responsive feeding. That means that instead of deciding how much your baby should eat, or pressuring them to eat certain things and trying to push food, you allow your baby to be in control when it comes to how much and what to eat of what you serve.

baby eating in green high chair with finger foods in front

While responsive feeding is possible when feeding pureed foods, most parents find it much easier to accomplish with baby led weaning.

When you give your baby sticks of food for them to eat, they are naturally picking them up, and deciding how much of it they're going to eat. This helps set the stage for feeding for life, and is a major plus to practicing this style of starting solid foods.

Baby led weaning is also easy! There's no need to buy baby food, and with a few modifications your baby can eat the same food you are.

When Can My Baby Begin Solid Foods

When we're talking about solid foods, you might think we are referring to actual pieces of foods. But "solid foods" is generally used as another term for complementary foods, or anything you give your baby that is not breast milk or formula.

It used to be recommended that you wait for a doubling of weight, a certain age, or other physical characteristics before giving your baby solid foods. But that is no longer the recommendation from feeding experts.

Instead, we recommend going by your baby's developmental signs of readiness.

baby on white background chewing on baby toy

Signs Your Baby is Ready for Solid Food

Here are some of the developmental signs of readiness you should be looking for:

  • Your baby can remain in a seated position unassisted for a few seconds when placed there. This means they generally have good head control and a strong enough core to help prevent choking.
  • They bring toys and other items to their mouth
  • Have hand control to get things where they want them to go
  • Have an interest in your food (be careful with this one, in some cases it can lead to parents inadvertently starting their baby too early on food!)

When Can I Give My Baby Finger Foods?

These developmental signs of readiness generally occur around 6 months of age.

There isn't a different timing recommendation for starting finger foods vs purees. Remember, solid foods refers to both finger foods and purees, not just finger foods or baby led weaning.

More: Learn more about when your baby is ready for solid foods here.

Do babies need teeth to do Baby Led Weaning?

Babies don't need teeth to do baby led weaning! In fact, they don't need teeth to eat at all.

Baby in high chair eating finger foods

If you think about how you chew your own food, we chew our food with our molars and not our front teeth. If we waited for babies to have molars before feeding them finger foods, we would be waiting a long time!

Your baby's gums are very hard! Their teeth are right below them. When you follow safe preparation guidelines for foods, you will help your baby be able to confidently handle all the foods they are given, no matter how many teeth they do or don't have.

How to Start Baby Led Weaning

Just like all new things, figuring out how to just start can sometimes be the hardest part! So let's break it down to the things that you need to know to get started.

What gear do I need to start solid foods?

You don't need much! Here are my recommendations:

That's it! You don't need all the doodads and doohickies that people try to sell you. Just a few things to help make feeding easier, and that's it.

How often should my baby eat?

This is one of the biggest misperceptions I hear when it comes to giving your baby solids.

You don't want to start off by giving your baby 3 meals and 2 snacks. That will generally impact how much breast milk or formula they drink.

Before the age of one, their milk is still their primary source of nutrients, and we don't want solid foods to interfere with that.

So instead of starting right off the bat with that many meals, start by feeding your baby 1-2 meals a day

After a few months when they have gotten the hang of eating more, then you can add in another meal for 3 meals a day. Generally, we aim for this around 9 months of age.

Your baby doesn't need snacks until after they are a year old!

How to Handle Breast Milk or Formula When Starting Solids?

Breast milk or formula is your baby's primary source of nutrients all the way through their first birthday. We want to protect that for them, while at the same time introducing them to foods and helping them have a successful eating journey.

baby drinking from bottle

There is no real need to track how much milk they are drinking. It is normal for some kids to start dropping bottles or feeds once they start to eat more solid foods. Others will continue to drink as much as before.

Aim to nurse or do a bottle feeding 30-60 minutes before you plan to give food. The goal is to allow them to satisfy their hunger with the milk.

When it's time to eat, they will be more able to explore the food and learn how to eat. They will be less likely to be frustrated that they aren't actually getting enough food quickly.

If you give them food first, they are more likely to fill up on the food, and reject their milk after. Or, they'll get frustrated and not want to explore food.

What Are the Best First Foods for a Baby?

There is not one particular food that is hands down the best one when it comes time to begin eating solid foods. There are lots of different options to introduce to your baby, no matter what style of feeding you are doing.

A few things to know:

  • There is no need to start with only one food at a meal. Instead, offer your baby a balanced meal of an iron-rich food, a high calorie food, and a fruit or veggie right from their first meal.
  • Serving only rice cereal as a first food is a thing of the past. There's no need to serve a baby cereal at all if you focus on iron-rich foods. If you choose to serve one, an oatmeal based one is usually a better option.
  • Start with single ingredient food to keep things simple and easy for your baby. After a few meals, you can start serving more mixed meals and adding all the spices you want!

More: Babies don't need bland foods! You may want to hold off on spicy things for a bit, but herbs and seasonings help your baby learn to enjoy all different flavors and help to expand their palette.

Purees for baby's first foods

When it comes to pureed foods, you can choose to make your own baby food or use store-bought. The nutrient we are most concerned with is iron, and it is important to focus on that first and foremost. Infant cereal that is fortified is generally the easiest way to get in iron when serving purees.

baby using spoon to eat out of a bowl

Other foods to consider:

  • Pea puree
  • Pumpkin puree
  • Banana Puree
  • Butternut squash puree
  • Carrot puree
  • Mashed sweet potatoes
  • Mango puree
  • Pureed black beans
  • Pureed lentils
  • Homemade baby oatmeal with peanut butter stirred in
  • Yogurt with nut butter stirred in

More: Research on feeding babies does not support the need to offer babies vegetables first in order for them to like it. There are a lot of other ways to help your baby learn to like foods! Choose a fruit or a vegetable for a meal, and go from there.

Best First Foods for Baby Led Weaning

When it comes to baby led weaning, what you have in your fridge or what you usually eat can guide a lot of your baby's diet to start. Remember to focus on an iron-rich food, a high calorie food, and a fruit or veggie at each meal.

Plate with baby led weaning examples of finger of carrot, finger of avocado, and finger of hummus toast

More: Just because you are doing baby led weaning doesn't mean your baby can't have a puree textured food! Pureed foods are a natural part of eating, and are an important texture for your baby to get used to. Think applesauce, yogurt, or hummus. All things that you or I would eat, too!

How to safely cut foods for your baby

With BLW, how you cut your baby's food can help them to succeed in eating their new foods.

Your aim is to serve foods that are 1-2 adult fingers wide, and 1.5 to 2 times the length of your baby's fist.

two adult fingers next to a strip of toast

This allows your baby to easily grasp the food and allows it to stay intact to make it to your baby's mouth.

While there is a lot of talk about how to cut foods, their specific size beyond being a size your baby can easily grasp isn't all that important. What's more important is their texture.

Serve foods that you can easily smash between your thumb and forefinger. This represents your baby's tongue and the roof of their mouth. This texture will help to prevent choking, and allow your baby to get food without getting frustrated.

More: This texture recommendation comes with a lot of caveats for different foods! (Think toast, meat, slippery foods to start!) For help with serving all of the common foods safely to your baby grab the Starting Solids course!

Can you combine purees and baby led weaning?

Absolutely! It is a myth that is often found in baby led weaning groups that you cannot serve purees and finger food at the same time.

Remember, purees are a texture of food that you and I eat too, and an important one for your baby to get used to. Like yogurt!

Having a kid who isn't gaining weight can be nerve wracking. Get tips here from a feeding expert to help you learn how to safely help your child gain weight, including a food list of high calorie foods and tips for how to serve them.

What's more important than a specific style of feeding your baby is how you feel around feeding. If you are anxious or uncomfortable when feeding your baby, they tend to pick up on it.

The idea isn't to make you stressed beyond belief at feeding your baby. Do what works for your family to help make feeding a pleasant and joyful experience for everyone involved!

More: Purees can be a helpful way for your baby to eat solid food. But they were never intended to be used as a long term method of feeding your baby! Use them for the first few weeks, and then quickly graduate to more advanced textures. All babies should be on textured and finger food by 9-10 months of age.

How Do I Feed My Baby?

When it comes time for the actual meal, sit your baby in their high chair and place just 2-3 pieces of food in front of them. Allow them to eat at their own pace, and pick up the food themselves!

stick of cucumber, stick of steamed sweet potato, and chickpea pasta on white plate

Serving too much food at once can quickly get overwhelming.

How to Let Baby Self Feed Purees

Responsive feeding is absolutely possible with spoon feeding purees, and allowing your baby to self-feed is one of the easiest ways to do it.

Simply scoop the puree onto a spoon and then hand it to your baby or place it in front of them. Allow them to bring the spoon to their mouth by themselves.

You can also put a small bowl of puree in front of them and allow them to rake it into their hands and get it to their mouth. Messy, yep. But a great way to help them explore textures and learn how to feed themselves!

Introducing variety for your baby's first foods

It wasn't long ago that you were encouraged to serve one food multiple times in a row to your baby. But that is no longer the recommendation!

We now know that the most important thing you can do is to introduce a variety of different foods to your baby. This helps them to learn different textures and flavors, and helps set them up to enjoy lots of different foods down the road.

Infographic with old advice and one avocado on plate, current advice with carrot, avocado, and meat on plate

You may have seen a trend out there encouraging you to introduce 100 foods to your baby before their first birthday. While I love the idea behind encouraging variety, for many parents this can be more overwhelming than helpful.

More important than introducing one food and moving on to the next is actually starting to incorporate new foods into you and your baby's diet. The goal is for them to get used to a food and learn to enjoy it. Not simply to be exposed to it once and never again!

What Should I Know About Food Allergies When Introducing Solids?

In the last few years, recommendations on how to prevent food allergies have changed drastically.

The current recommendation is to introduce potentially allergenic foods early and often. Once your baby has started solid foods, you should introduce the top 9 food allergens.

There is no need to introduce solids one at a time to your baby, but the current recommendations from feeding experts are to introduce only one of the top food allergens at a time.

Once your child has eaten those foods a handful of times, you can start to combine them with other allergens.

Infographic with old advice title with plate with no allergens on it, new advice title with plate with magos, eggs, and peanut butter toast

If your baby has severe eczema or has been previously diagnosed with a food allergy (often this will be an egg allergy discovered from vaccines), they are at high risk of an allergy. Talk with their health care provider about a plan for starting solid foods.

Foods to avoid when feeding babies

The goal with feeding our babies is actually to help them learn to eat the food that we ourselves eat. So we want them to eat as many things that we do as possible. The few things that we want to avoid with babies are:

  • Added sugars or sweeteners
  • Too much added salt
  • Honey (related to botulism, and separate from the added sugars recommendation!)
  • Cow's milk to drink (it's fine as an ingredient in something, you don't want it to replace their breast milk or formula)

Foods to Avoid With BLW

When it comes to baby led weaning specifically, the main concerns are foods that are considered a choking hazard.

Those include the standard hot dogs and hard candies. But they also include things like peanut butter on a spoon, hard chunks of raw vegetables, skins of foods, and even bread that is too crusty.

The Starting Solids course is your best resource to understand the different kinds of choking hazards and how to modify foods to safely serve them to your baby!

Picture of apple, spinach, cherry tomatoes, raisins, carrots, and peanut butter on a spoon

These are all considered choking hazards for babies! Each of them needs to be modified in order to serve them safely to your baby.

Baby Led Weaning and Choking

While there are several foods that are considered choking hazards for babies, your baby is not at a higher risk of choking when doing baby led weaning. The key is to learn about the choking hazards and how to serve them safely.

What you are likely to see more of with baby led weaning is gagging. Gagging is not choking. It is actually your baby's way of protecting themselves and preventing a food from getting into their airway.

While there might be more gagging at the beginning with BLW as your baby learns to manipulate food in their mouth, it often stops fairly quickly as you learn what your baby is able to handle and they learn how to eat more foods.

With babies who start solely with purees, they often do not gag as much at the beginning of solids. But they end up gagging more when finger foods are introduced as they don't know how to handle them. So the bottom line is expect gagging at some point or another!

The best thing you can do for a baby gagging is to let them be. Interfering by patting them on the back or startling them is likely to lead to actual choking. Let them work it out, and do your best to remain calm to help coach them through it.

How much should My baby be eating?

Every baby is different. Some babies will eat a lot. Some will take a while to start eating much at all.

There is no right amount for your baby to eat. The best thing you can do is approach feeding from a place of curiosity and without agenda. Your baby might eat a lot. They might eat a little. It may change every day or every meal.

Do your best to provide a supportive environment to allow them to eat the amount they need, and let them take it from there.

More: Learn more about how much your baby should eat and portion sizes here.

Does My Baby Need Water?

Plan to give your baby a small shot glass size of water with meals. They do not need water outside of this until they are a year old.

Your baby doesn't actually need water at all, and giving them a glass is simply to help them practice drinking from an open cup. It also helps them get used to the flavor of water.

If your baby doesn't take to water at first, simply continue to offer it. Allow them to experiment and get used to it. And don't worry if they aren't actually drinking it!

Outside of this water, your baby does not need anything other than their breast milk or formula. They do not need juice of any kind at this age.

What Changes Should You Expect After Your Baby Starts Solids?

With starting solid foods, you can expect your baby's GI tract to go through a few changes. Most babies will work through this on their own. Some babies will experience constipation. Providing a variety of foods is often a great way to help manage constipation.

Alterations to your baby's sleep patterns are not usually directly related to starting solids outside of any temporary GI discomfort they may be working through.

The time period when you introduce solids is one of great change for your baby, and they are going through many developmental leaps that often have an affect on their sleep.

In most cases, the best plan is to continue with introducing solids, and allow your baby to work through things on their own. Consult your child's health care provider for specific help with any concerns you may have.

More: Head here for help with managing constipation after starting solid foods.

What does a 6 month old meal look like?

Start with 1 piece of 2-3 items of food, one from each of the 3 food categories. Do your best to keep the amount of food on the plate small to start with so as not to overwhelm them!

What do meals for a 7 and 8 month old look like?

As your baby starts to develop their pincer grasp, you can progress to giving them smaller foods. The texture will continue to be soft and smooshable for a while. Continue to let them practice with large and small pieces once you introduce them.

Plate with sweet potato mac and cheese and broccoli bites

More: See examples of foods for 9 and 10 month olds here.

Best Tips for Starting Baby Led Weaning

Let's sum this guide up with a rundown of some of my best tips for baby led weaning and feeding your baby their first foods.

  • Don't be in a rush to start. Be familiar with what to look for before considering solid foods.
  • Get a high chair that positions your baby properly, with foot support and the ability to be at the table with you.
  • Eat with your baby. Modeling is one of the best ways to help your baby learn how to eat.
  • Know that gagging will likely happen. It doesn't mean that something is wrong, it is your baby's way of learning how to manipulate their food in their mouth and keeping it out of their airway.
  • Don't have an agenda with eating. They will eat the amount that is right for them, even if it's not the amount that you think they might need!
  • Offer them balanced meals right from the start with foods from each of the three categories.
  • Focus on the HOW of feeding more than the what. How you feed your baby is going to have more of an affect on them long term than the specific foods or methods of feeding. Setting up some proactive feeding practices will give you the best way to manage any picky behaviors that pop up as a toddler or preschooler. That means what you say, how you set up the environment, and so much more. The starting solids course will guide you extensively through this!

Do you have any other questions about baby led weaning and how to start your baby with foods? Let me know below!

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