One of the most exciting times during your little one’s first year is transitioning to solid food. There are many opinions about the best way to introduce babies to foods other than breast milk or formula. The approach that seems most sensible is baby-led weaning.

Babies develop at their own pace, and transitioning to solids is proof of that. Given the importance of food in growing up to be healthy, it’s only logical that babies are guided gently toward expanding their palate.

Here’s how to get started on solids once they show signs of readiness.

What are the health benefits of exclusive breast-feeding?

Most major health organizations recommend that babies be exclusively breast-fed for the first 6 months of life. Once solid foods are added to the baby’s diet, nursing should continue until your baby is at least 1. The World Health Organization recommends breast-feeding to age 2 and beyond, if possible.

Exclusive breast-feeding for the first six months of your baby’s life helps them with the following:

  • a strong immune system
  • a lower risk of gastrointestinal infections
  • a lower risk of respiratory infections
  • a strong bond with you due to the presence of oxytocin during nursing

It also helps the mother postpartum with:

  • losing the baby weight faster
  • delaying the return of menstrual periods (ask your doctor for a reliable method of birth control)
  • a lower risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer
  • a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes

Is your baby ready to start solids? 

Around the time when your baby turns 6 months, you’ll probably notice that they’re showing an interest in solid food.

Here’s how to tell if your baby is ready for solids.

  • They’re able to sit up unsupported. This is important because it makes it easier to prevent choking.
  • They start reaching for food on the table. Sit your baby down for meals with the rest of the family, and you’ll notice their interest growing.
  • Better hand-eye coordination, which allows them to pick up small pieces of food like peas or small slices of cooked veggies.
  • They’re able and ready to chew. Once your baby puts a piece of food in their mouth, they’ll start chewing. If until now their first gesture was to spit out anything else except for breast milk, it’s a good indication they can start chewing.

How to start baby-led weaning

Once you detect your baby’s readiness to try solid foods, here’s how to get started.

  1. Have your baby sit down with you for meals and offer them a bit of food every time. They might not eat every time, but you’re building a good habit.
  2. Have a glass of water ready. Provide a BPA-free plastic cup to prevent mishaps and get your baby used to a sippy cup. If you don’t mind the initial spills, have them try a regular cup from the beginning.
  3. Keep it small. Offer small food pieces so that your baby has a chance to examine each piece as they put them in their mouth. A word on plates: Unless you want to play a game of fetch, refrain from using plates or bowls right away. Gravity and baby will have it their way with dishes of any kind, at least in the beginning.
  4. Be ready for (extreme) messes. If the thought of having avocado spread all over your baby’s highchair tray and in their hair makes you flinch, well, that’s just the beginning. Babies make a lot of mess while eating, and that’s all part of their gourmet (yes, gourmet) exploration. Wash their hands before sitting down and let them have fun. It’s all part of learning and building positive associations.
  5. Things will change in diaper land. As your baby tries different foods, you’ll open their diaper to a different color and texture every time. Make a note about what they eat so you can keep track of the before and after.

Allergies and other reactions

Offer one food at a time for three or four days each so you can catch adverse reactions right away.

Symptoms of food intolerances (your child might outgrow them) include:

  • rash around their mouth or cheeks (it might spread further)
  • runny or stuffed nose and itchy eyes
  • increased or new spitting up
  • diarrhea

What are some safe first foods for baby?

The following are great first foods to offer your baby:

  • mashed avocado
  • sweet potato cooked thoroughly and served in small pieces or mashed
  • cooked veggies (peas, carrots, potatoes, broccoli)
  • meat and poultry (meat and liver especially are rich in iron, which babies need, but choose organic and farm-raised to avoid any chemicals)
  • garbanzo beans cooked thoroughly (serve them whole or mashed)

How to prevent your baby from choking

Babies can easily choke if they’re given the wrong things or are left unsupervised during meals, even for only a few seconds.

Here are a few tips to help prevent mishaps:

  • No hard, crunchy foods until your child is old enough to chew well.
  • Soft nut- or seed-based butter can be a choking hazard.
  • Have your baby sit for meals, whether indoors or outdoors.
  • Laughing or crying can make a baby choke. Also, sleepy babies and food don’t mix.
  • Popcorn is especially dangerous, so avoid it until your child is 4 years or older.
  • Small portions prevent babies from grabbing too much in one go and are excellent for building a good relationship with food.
  • Always supervise your baby while drinking from a bottle instead of propping them up.

Next steps

Transitioning to solid foods is an exciting time for your little one. The big world of food textures, tastes, and colors will be theirs to experience.

The most important thing is to not rush it. Every baby is different, and they sure show it in their likes and dislikes of various foods. As with everything else, your baby takes cues from you, so keep meal times fun and healthy.

Q:

Is baby-led weaning a safe approach to getting baby started eating solids?

A:

Baby-led weaning refers to allowing your baby to feed themselves from the time they start solid foods, rather than you feeding them purees with a spoon. It can be a safe way to introduce foods starting no sooner than 6 months of age. Choking is the biggest risk with this approach, but can be safely managed by paying close attention to your baby while they are eating and offering only very soft foods in bite-sized portions. 

Karen Gill, MDAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.