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Baby-led weaning is an increasingly popular way of introducing your baby to their first foods without relying on commercial baby foods, purées, or spoon feeding.
Proponents rave about its many benefits, including the ability to simplify feeding times for parents, better appetite control, less fussiness around foods, and protection against obesity later in life.
Nonetheless, many healthcare professionals highlight its drawbacks, such as an increased risk of choking (
This article examines the latest science surrounding baby-led weaning, its benefits, and how to safely use this method with your own child.
Baby-led weaning (BLW) was first introduced around 15 years ago and has grown in popularity ever since (
Weaning is the process of introducing solids to your exclusively breast- or bottle-fed baby.
BLW encourages the introduction of foods through self-feeding, starting around 6 months of age. It provides an alternative to the purées and spoon-feedings traditionally relied on in most Western countries as a babies’ first foods.
Instead of gradually shifting from parent-fed purées towards family foods as the baby grows older, BLW encourages parents to offer baby-sized pieces of regular foods from the get-go (
The parents pick what foods to offer, when to offer them, and in which form to offer them, so that their babies can best feed themselves. In turn, the child gets to pick what, how much, and how quickly to eat (
Baby-led weaning (BLW) is an alternative way to introduce your baby to their first foods. It relies on offering baby-sized pieces of regular foods rather than purées, starting around 6 months of age.
BLW is touted to offer a variety of benefits, ranging from healthier eating behaviors to better long-term health outcomes for children.
May promote good eating behaviors
BLW puts the emphasis on letting your baby choose what and how much to eat, making them active participants in the feeding process rather than passive recipients. Because of this, BLW is often claimed to promote healthier eating behaviors later in life (
In one study, babies weaned using a BLW approach were more in touch with their hunger and better able to recognize feelings of fullness around 18–24 months of age than those weaned using a more traditional, purée-feeding approach (
As toddlers, they were also less responsive to foods — meaning they were more likely to eat foods due to hunger rather than simply because they were within view or reach (
Being less responsive to foods and having the ability to recognize feelings of fullness have both been linked to a lower likelihood of childhood obesity (
Therefore, BLW may help babies develop healthy eating patterns based on appetite rather than external factors, which can serve them throughout their lives.
May protect against excess weight gain
BLW may protect children from excess weight gain later in life.
Experts believe this may be due to babies being much more involved in the eating process. With BLW, babies are allowed to grasp foods and bring them to their mouths at their own pace, with little influence from parents.
They may also have a better opportunity to stop eating when full compared to spoon-fed infants, who may be at a higher risk of being consciously or subconsciously overfed.
Numerous studies show that BLW babies are more likely to have a weight in the normal range than babies weaned using more traditional weaning approaches.
One study found that infants who were spoon-fed tended to be around 2.2 pounds (1 kg) heavier at 18–24 months than those weaned using BLW. They were also around 2.4 times more likely to be overweight (
In another study, around 1% of babies weaned using a BLW approach were categorized as obese compared to 11% for the spoon-fed group (
However, larger and more recent studies find no link between weaning method and infant weights, highlighting the need for more research on this subject (
May reduce fussiness around food
BLW is often claimed to reduce picky eating behaviors and promote the acceptance of a wider variety of foods, as more tastes and textures are introduced early on (
In one study, BLW babies were less likely to be rated as fussy eaters by their mothers at 18–24 months of age compared to spoon-fed babies (
In another study, babies weaned using a baby-led approach were less likely to prefer sweets as preschoolers than babies weaned using a more traditional purée-feeding approach (
Additionally, mothers choosing BLW appear to be less likely to pressure their babies to eat or restrict their intakes and generally have a more responsive feeding style than those following a traditional weaning approach (
That said, the use of a responsive feeding style, in which the caregiver responds to the signals of hunger and feelings of fullness communicated by the child — rather than control what and how much they eat — may account for most of this effect (
Therefore, using a responsive feeding style when spoon- or purée-feeding may provide similar benefits (
May make feeding your child easier
Proponents of BLW often talk about its ease as the deciding factor to use this method. Parents no longer need to think about making or purchasing suitable purées. They can simply offer their babies BLW-appropriate versions of the family meals.
In addition, the child is trusted to self-select what and how much to eat, which can take some pressure off the parents.
Research shows that mothers using BLW report lower levels of anxiety during the weaning period. They also tend to be less likely to express concern over or monitor their child’s weight (
However, such studies cannot show that one factor caused the other. For instance, it’s possible that mothers who are naturally less anxious are simply more likely to adopt a BLW style.
BLW may help promote good eating behaviors and protect children against excess weight gain. It may also reduce picky eating behaviors and make it easier for parents to introduce foods to their babies.
Some foods are more suitable for BLW than others.
Starting with foods of appropriate sizes and textures and avoiding potentially problematic foods can make it easier for your baby to eat and reduce safety concerns, such as choking.
While weaning your baby, breastfeeding or infant formula will continue to provide most of the calories your baby needs. Their intake of breast milk or formula should gradually reduce as their intake of solids increases.
Here are some BLW-appropriate starter foods:
- baked, skinless potatoes or sweet potatoes
- beans or peas, slightly mashed
- de-segmented orange without inner skins
- ground meat
- ground nuts and seeds
- hard-boiled egg
- soft-boiled green beans
- steamed or shredded carrots
- steamed broccoli
- thawed or slightly mashed berries
- unsweetened yogurt
Keep in mind that it’s especially important to offer your baby iron-rich foods, as this nutrient is crucial at this stage of your baby’s growth and development (
Good examples of iron-rich foods include meat, eggs, fish, beans, and leafy greens.
It’s also best to cut foods into slices that your baby can easily pick up and hold and to offer foods your baby’s gums can easily mash.
Once you’ve prepared BLW-appropriate foods, place a small amount in front of your baby and allow them to grab and bring pieces to their mouths themselves.
Foods to avoid
Some foods should be avoided when introducing foods to your child — regardless of your chosen weaning method:
- Honey. Honey may contain Clostridium botulinum, which are bacteria that can cause a very serious form of food poisoning. You shouldn’t give honey to babies under 12 months of age (
- Undercooked eggs. Undercooked eggs are more likely to contain Salmonella, which are bacteria that can cause harm to your baby (
- Unpasteurized dairy products and luncheon meats. These can contain Listeria monogenes, bacteria that can make your baby ill (
- Cow’s milk. You should avoid giving your baby cow’s milk before 12 months of age, as it isn’t as rich in nutrients as breast milk or formula, is low in iron, and may reduce iron absorption from foods (
- Low-fat products. Babies need a significantly higher percentage of calories from fat than adults. Therefore, low-fat products are inappropriate (
- Sugary, salty, or highly processed foods. These foods are typically low in nutrients. What’s more, babies’ kidneys have difficulty handling too much salt, and sugar can damage their teeth (
In addition, when using BLW, you should avoid offering foods that babies can break off in large chunks using their gums but cannot chew, as well as foods naturally in a shape that can obstruct your baby’s airway. Examples include (
- Certain raw foods: raw apples, carrots, celery, broccoli stems, etc.
- Round or coin-shaped foods: whole grapes, cherry tomatoes, hot dogs, hard candy, etc.
- Hard or crumbly foods: popcorn, very hard-crusted bread, whole nuts, etc.
- Sticky foods: thick nut butters, marshmallows, etc.
Some foods are more BLW-appropriate than others. Though it’s important to introduce a variety of foods to your baby, it’s best to avoid risky foods and focus on softer items that your baby can grasp and eat easily.
BLW may not be suitable for all babies. Here are a couple of considerations to keep in mind before giving it a try with your child.
Is your baby developmentally ready?
First, it’s recommended you wait until your baby is developmentally ready to eat foods on their own.
On average, this happens around 6 months of age. However, not all babies of this age are able to eat solids without choking, so it’s best to look for signs of readiness (
Developmental signs of readiness include the absence of a tongue thrust (a baby’s natural reflex of pushing out foods with their tongues), grasping items with more hand control, and bringing them to the mouth.
Babies should ideally also be able to sit up unsupported and demonstrate an interest in the foods you eat (
If you’re unsure whether your baby is developmentally ready to begin BLW, consult your pediatrician to ensure proper safety.
Reducing the risk of choking
Choking is one of the safety concerns most often cited by health professionals when discussing BLW (
However, research shows no difference in choking incidence between children weaned using purées or BLW (
Parents can take the following steps to minimize the risk of choking during weaning (
- Ensure that your baby sits up straight when eating, ideally at 90 degrees while facing you.
- Never leave your baby alone when eating.
- Allow your baby to bring foods to their mouths themselves so they can control the amount of food in their mouths, as well as their eating pace.
- Ensure that the foods you serve can be easily mashed between your fingers or when pressed between your lips.
- Cut foods in a lengthy shape that your baby can easily grasp and pick up.
- Avoid offering foods that have round or coin-like shapes, are overly sticky, or can easily break off into pieces or crumbs.
Monitoring for allergies
The latest research encourages parents to introduce allergens to their babies as soon as solids are first introduced, generally around 6 months of age (
Delaying their introduction beyond this age may increase your baby’s risk of developing an allergy (
Common allergens include dairy, eggs, peanuts, fish, seafood, soy, wheat, sesame, and tree nuts, such as cashews, almonds, pecans, and walnuts.
It’s best to introduce these allergens in very small quantities, one at a time, and wait two to three days before introducing a new one. This will allow enough time to notice symptoms of an allergic reaction and make it easier to know which foods caused it.
Reactions can range from mild, including rashes or itchy skin, to extreme, such as trouble breathing and swallowing, and can appear within minutes to hours after the allergen is consumed (
You may want to try introducing potential allergens early during the day, for instance with breakfast or lunch rather than dinner, to allow time to monitor reactions during the day.
If you suspect your child has a food allergy or have questions about introducing allergenic foods, consult your baby’s healthcare provider for advice.
You can reduce the risks associated with BLW by ensuring that your baby is developmentally ready, taking steps to minimize the risk of choking, and introducing foods in a way that makes identifying allergic reactions easier.
Baby-led weaning is an alternative approach to introducing solids that involves offering baby-sized pieces of regular foods, instead of purées, starting at around 6 months of age.
It may have various benefits, but, as with any weaning method, it’s important to keep certain safety considerations in mind.
Baby-led weaning can make it easier for parents to feed their babies and may promote good eating behaviors, protect your baby against excess weight gain, and reduce fussiness around food.
If you select the right foods, serve them in appropriate consistencies, and take active steps to reduce the risk of choking, baby-led weaning can be a great way to introduce your little one to a variety of healthy foods early on.
If you want to learn more about baby-led weaning, there are plenty of books on the topic available in stores and online.