It’s a common question that so many parents have. Can you combine traditional and baby led weaning? Is baby led weaning an all or nothing method? If you choose to spoon feed purees, does that mean that you can’t also give your baby finger foods? I am a passionate proponent of doing what is right for your baby and your family. There's no need to follow any arbitrary rules for feeding. So when questions like this pop up as a result of rumors and misguided recommendations, I feel the need to set the record straight!
If you’re at all interested in a baby led weaning style of feeding, it’s likely that you’ve found yourself in one of the facebook groups on the subject. The groups can sometimes be a source of good meal inspirations. But that comes at a hefty price tag of mom-shaming and rigid rules more often than not. Even the ones that claim to be “research-based!"
Many of these groups advocate strict adherence to baby led weaning. Or what they consider it to be, at least. They like to say that you should never combine traditional and baby led weaning. That means not ever feeding pureed foods. They tend to say that it can increase the choking risk of feeding. On top of this, they frequently advise parents to stop feeding their baby anything for 2 weeks before starting over with baby led weaning. Even though these groups claim to be research based, there is absolutely NO evidence to support this recommendation!
Swallowing mechanics when weaning babies
The argument most often used to support the increased choking risk claim is that babies learn to swallow first with purees. With baby led weaning they learn to chew first and then swallow. What the people making these claims don’t take into account is that babies learn how to swallow at birth when they drink milk!
Purees are essentially just a thickened liquid, and are swallowed in the same way a liquid is. Learning how to chew with baby led weaning doesn’t negate your baby’s knowledge of swallowing liquids. And conversely, swallowing purees doesn’t affect your baby’s ability to learn to eat finger foods. Early stage purees were designed to be very similar to what your baby already knows how to do. It's essentially just like swallowing liquids.
The "Rule" for Baby Led Weaning
Let's dive a little bit more into a rule that's often set out for baby led weaning by some of the groups. They say it’s ok to do naturally pureed foods like yogurt and applesauce. That in and of itself undermines their argument that you learn to chew before swallowing, though. Your baby doesn’t know if something is naturally supposed to be pureed or not! So if the people making this recommendation are ok with pre-loading a spoon and giving something that is naturally a pureed texture, I can’t understand why they are so against giving something else that is pureed artificially. Your baby is going to treat both of those items the same when it comes time to eat them.
What Does the Original Baby Led Weaning Book Say?
Let's look to the original baby led weaning book by Gill Rapley for another take on this. In the book she says that the reason you avoid purees with baby led weaning is that they’re just not necessary. Waiting until the developmental signs of readiness are present means your baby is ready for table foods. She also states that the main problem she sees with purees is giving only mushy food. It's also not allowing babies to have control at mealtimes.
I agree that purees are not necessary for babies who start eating around 6 months. I also acknowledge that sometimes there are things that come into the picture that make purees a needed option for parents. Things like daycare not being on board with finger foods, or significant others being fully resistant. Whatever the reason, I want parents to know that it doesn’t have to be black and white when it comes to weaning. You can combine methods safely into something that works for your own family. Just keep a few things in mind if you do!
How to Combine Weaning Methods
First and foremost, aim to always give your baby control of what they eat. No matter if you are feeding them finger foods or purees. You can feed purees and still let your baby lead the way!
There is always the option to pre-load a spoon and hand it to your baby. You can also hold the spoon in front of them and ensure that they always lean forward to take it. There’s no need for saying something like “Just one more bite,” even if you’re feeding from a spoon. And there's definitely no need to try to get a spoon into your baby's mouth if they are unwilling. You want your baby to be able to recognize their hunger and fullness cues. You'll help them to recognize these by allowing them to decide how much food they will eat.
If you are apprehensive about your baby’s ability to tolerate more than one texture, I’d recommend serving pureed foods and table foods at separate meals. Especially when not using a pre-loaded spoon, but feeding your baby yourself. Then there is a clear delineation between the types of foods. This can help eliminate any potential confusion your baby might have. Many babies have no trouble switching back and forth between methods, though. Let your baby guide you in what they need. There is definitely no need to restrict a baby for an arbitrary 2 week “reset” period before giving finger foods, though!
Regardless of whether you decide to do one method only, or combine traditional and baby led weaning into something that works for your unique family, if you are serving your baby table foods of any kind make sure you keep the following in mind. While it is ideal for babies to eat with the whole family at meal times, and to eat similar foods as their families, babies do need to have textures altered for developmental appropriateness and safety. All foods should be smooshable between your thumb and forefinger so that they are not a choking hazard. For more details, check out the Starting Solids Guide. It has an overview of what to look for when serving foods.
The Benefits of Baby Led Weaning
While I love baby led weaning as a tool, I think it is just one of many. I am an advocate of doing what is right for your baby and family first and foremost. That often means not following a method completely to the letter. And that’s ok!
One of the benefits to the popularity of baby led weaning is that research studies have been done in the last several years to assess the efficacy and safety of the method. Research has shown that there is no greater choking risk with babies that practice a safe form of baby led weaning. (ref) There hasn’t been much, if any, research done specifically on the safety of combining two methods. But if you’re practicing a safe form of providing foods (meaning they’re smooshable- at least at the beginning), there’s nothing from an eating mechanics standpoint that would suggest any greater safety risk with combining methods.
Do what is right for your family and your baby. Know the safety guidelines around smooshable food, and let your baby lead the way with what is right for them. And avoid taking guidance about safety from people on facebook who’s only real knowledge of baby led weaning is that they’ve done it before and read the book, if at all possible!