When Jennifer Fliss gave her 7-month-old daughter solid foods for the first time, she did it without using a single spoon.
“We roasted sweet potatoes and cut them into about 1-inch square pieces,” she says. “We sat her in her chair and put them in front of her.” After that, Fliss says, she sat back and let her daughter lead the way.
“My guess is that months of watching us prepped her, since she just picked it up and knew to bring it to her mouth,” the Seattle mom says. “If I recall, she liked it and ate more. It was soft enough to mash with her gums.”
Fliss is one of a growing number of parents who are bypassing purees and cereals on a spoon when they introduce solid foods. Instead, they hand their little ones the reins at mealtime by giving them soft foods they can hold themselves with a feeding method called baby-led weaning (BLW).
What Is BLW?
You give your baby foods she can pick up and put in her own mouth, letting her take the lead. The “weaning” in BLW means “start solids,” not stop nursing or bottle-feeding.
The first solids should be finger foods your infant can feed herself, says Krista Yoder Latortue, a registered dietitian who specializes in pediatric nutrition. She says baby-led weaning encourages infants to explore what they're eating.
In short, the technique skips over the spoon-feeding stage and makes your baby’s meals do-it-themselves affairs from the start.
Benefits of BLW
When your little one has control over what and how much she eats, it helps her learn the signals her body gives her about food, says Ashley Bufe, MD, a pediatrician in Decatur, GA.
“With baby-led weaning, babies have their own say about when they're full or not interested,” Bufe says. “As parents, we tend to say, ‘Let's finish the jar, and then you can be done,’ but it’s important for babies to learn their own hunger cues.”
More food may go on the floor or in your kid’s hair than in her mouth, and that’s OK, Latortue says. “Your role as the parent is to expose your infant to a variety of foods that are safe and healthy,” she says. “Not to get your infant to eat.”
Studies show that having family meals at the table -- for children of any age -- sets up healthy eating patterns. “Your baby is influenced by what you do,” Bufe says. “Baby-led weaning lets them participate in the family meal. If they're eating the same foods you are, that's good modeling.”
Fliss says BLW was the easiest choice for her family. “I really, really liked not having to bother with spoon feeding,” she says. “Never having to puree my own food or buy boatloads of baby food was nice.”
Still, it’s not for everyone. Mealtime can be messier and take longer when you’re not spooning in the food yourself. And if you work outside the home, your child’s daycare might not be willing to do BLW.
“It’s important to assess with your pediatrician whether or not your infant is developmentally ready for it,” Latortue says.
“Some babies born prematurely may be ready for solid foods, but their motor skills or their swallowing skills are not where they really could self-manage it,” Bufe says.
It’s not a good fit for infants with certain health conditions, such as neurologic diseases, respiratory diseases, and problems with swallowing.
Feeding the BLW Way
Doctors say breast milk or formula is all your child needs until about 6 months. After that, you can see if she’s ready to add solid food to her diet.
Before starting baby-led weaning, your little one should be able to:
- Hold her head up
- Sit up mostly by herself
- Use her hands to scoop and hold
- Bring her hands to her mouth
The foods should be firm enough to hold, but soft enough to mash with her fingers. Start with stick-shaped choices (or cut food into large strips) so your baby can pick it up and hold it easily. Go for grub that's the size of her fist, like steamed broccoli or small pieces of toast.
Your child won’t like everything she tries. Many enjoy nutritious pieces of avocado, but Fliss says that was a “big fail” for her daughter. She wouldn’t eat them. For her, sweet potatoes stayed on top of the list.
To make sure your baby doesn’t put too much in her mouth at once, limit how much food you put on her tray at a time. And never leave your infant alone while eating.
“No matter which feeding method you use, there's always a risk for choking,” Bufe says. “So when babies are learning to eat, they need to be monitored.”
Avoid foods that pose choking risks, including:
- Whole grapes
- Uncut meats
- Hot dog pieces
- Hard, raw fruits
- Hard, raw vegetables
Choose What’s Right for You and Your Baby
BLW is a great way to feed your infant, but it’s not the only way. Your goal is to offer her a variety of healthy choices and help her move toward a solid-food diet. Exactly how you do that is up to you and your child.
A combination of methods works well for many families, Latortue says.
“Try giving your child finger foods at the beginning of the meal followed by spoon-feeding purees at the end of the meal,” she says. “This will let your child explore and become familiar with them while he or she is hungry.”
Bufe says that when you're choosing a feeding strategy, "do what feels right and what makes you happy and your baby happy. That’s what's most important.”
Whatever method you pick, remember to go at your baby’s pace, and make mealtime a good time for everyone.