When it comes to feeding your baby, people have pretty strong opinions about which way is best. Whether it’s formula vs. breastmilk or when to start solid foods, the topic of infant feeding seems to get everyone up in arms.
I followed the advice of my pediatrician with my oldest daughters: we started cereal around four months and introduced traditional baby food shortly thereafter. We tried fruits, veggies, and all sorts of gross combinations. Although we tried really hard to cultivate good eaters, we failed. However, the older my girls get, the more willing they are to try new foods. But for awhile we had the pickiest of toddlers, and I was determined not to go down that road again.
When my pediatrician suggested cereals for my youngest daughter, Polly, I politely declined. We continued to exclusively breastfeed until closer to six months. I picked up a book about baby-led weaning at the suggestion of a friend, devouring the book in just hours. Not only did it give great advice on introducing solid foods, but it carefully laid out the science behind why it works. It made me a much more confident parent in this area.
Commonly Asked Questions About Baby-Led Weaning
Below are the most commonly asked questions people asked me on my Instagram account poll.
Please note: I am not a medical doctor or nutritionist and have not been licensed to give infant feeding advice. The following answers are based on my own experience with baby-led weaning. More detailed information can be found in this book.
What is baby-led weaning?
According to the book, weaning is the gradual process of transitioning baby from breastfeeding or formula feeding to having none at all. Many parents introduce cereal and purees at the encouragement of their pediatrician, then wait to offer table foods once their baby has a mouth full of teeth. Baby-led weaning is just that: it’s a process by which your baby leads the entire process, using his or her own instincts and abilities.
Baby-led weaning allows your baby to sit with the rest of the family at mealtime and join in when she is ready. She’s encouraged to explore food by picking it up and playing with it, even before she knows it’s something to eat. Food is offered in pieces that your baby can manipulate without your help (no spoons or purees). Not only does baby feed herself from the start, but she’s in control of how much she eats and which foods she prefers.
What is the first food you offered and at what age?
We offered Polly scrambled eggs and bananas just before her sixth month. She didn’t eat many foods we offered in the beginning, but it helped her get used to manipulating her hands and mouth. It also helped her adjust to the different textures of foods we prepared. Once she understood the items on her tray were intended to put in her mouth, we continued adding new options every few days.
What developmental milestones had she met before getting started?
The general rule is to wait to introduce solid foods until after your baby is doing the following: sits unassisted, shows an interest in food, and has reached the sixth month mark. Polly was nearly six months old and almost sitting unassisted, but she consistently lunged for us during mealtime. We decided to go ahead and see how she responded.
Does your baby have teeth?
Polly had no teeth when we first started, and now at eleven months old, she still only has two. That hasn’t stopped her from ripping meat with her gums and chewing up all sorts of fruits and vegetables we offer. As adults, we use our back teeth for chewing, but babies don’t get molars until well after table food is generally introduced. Therefore, most babies don’t rely on their early teeth to eat anyway.
Were you anxious over choking?
I think my husband was more anxious than I was, although I was cautious. The book shares some wonderful information about the development of the gag reflex which made me more confident during mealtime. The younger the baby is, the closer to the front of the mouth the gag reflex is. When food gets farther back on her tongue, her instinct is to gag until it moves closer to the front of her mouth. This can be confused for choking, but it isn’t at all the same thing.
The book also emphasizes that you should avoid as much parental intervention as possible. If she is able to chew up the food, she will; if she manages to get the food to the back of her mouth, she will swallow it. But if she can’t do either of these things, yet is seated in the proper upright position, the food will just fall out!
One of the biggest reasons that baby-led weaning works so well is that self-feeding puts baby in complete control. As babies grow and develop the pincer grasp, their mouths are also more capable of moving small pieces of food around and safely consuming them.
It’s hard not to be a little anxious when you first introduce table food, but being prepared and knowing what to look for will help boost your confidence. I used to joke that red and coughing or making noise was good–that meant she was breathing and working to move food around in her mouth. Blue and quiet is bad and definitely requires intervention.
How long did it take her to get over the gagging?
I know it’s hard to believe, but not long at all.
“The gag reflex may well be a key part of babies learning how to manage food safely. When a baby has triggered this reflex a few times by putting too much food into his mouth or pushing it too far back, he learns not to do it (Baby-Led Weaning, p. 46).”
The more we offered Polly at mealtime, the better she got at manipulating food in her hands and mouth. Polly still gags occasionally, but it’s almost always because she got a little too eager at the table. She rarely requires any assistance from us to correct.
Do you offer purees or traditional baby food?
This can be a hot-button issue among this crowd. Some research shows introducing a spoon too early can impact their feeding skills. I never bought traditional jarred baby food, but we do include pouches during mealtime. I utilize them more now that Polly can hold and squeeze them herself. Pouches are a great way to add veggies to her meals or when we’re on the go.
What is the hardest part about baby-led weaning?
One of the hardest parts, at least in the beginning, was not being able to communicate with her about food. Was she getting enough? Was she eating too much? Did she have any preferences? Relying on a six month old to regulate her own meals can be difficult to embrace. Now that she’s almost a year old, it is much easier. She can nod her head yes, can refuse foods, and can point to foods she wants first. We continue offering food until she turns it away or rakes it onto the floor (a sure sign she’s finished).
What is your favorite part about baby-led weaning?
My favorite part has been having her so involved at mealtime. Our entire family is eating the same meal, so she’s less distracted by what we’re doing around the table. She’s learning how to behave during mealtime, and we all sit together until everyone is finished. We have seen so much of her personality develop during mealtime, and I can’t deny it’s just plain fun to watch her eat!
How did you prepare/serve foods in the beginning?
In the beginning, we cut everything into matchsticks or finger-sized pieces. That made it easy for her to hold in her fist. As her pincer grasp developed, we transitioned to smaller pieces. We also steam or roast most of our veggies to make sure the texture is one she can tolerate. For things that were harder to chew (think pork chops and pineapple), we gave her large enough pieces that she could simply suck. We changed that up once she was a little older.
How much do you feed her at each meal?
I mentioned this before, but we continue offering food until she refuses it. When she was younger, we looked for signs of fatigue or disinterest. It became easier as she got older. At some meals, she may only eat a few bites, while other times she’ll eat an adult-sized portion. When packing her meals for our caregivers, I always err on the side of too much to make sure she has enough.
How do you get her to eat things she doesn’t like?
This can be tricky because it’s almost impossible to get Polly to do something she doesn’t want to do. We continue to offer new foods many times before we write it off as something she doesn’t like. Sometimes it’s more obvious than others.
A handy trick we like to use is simply a fork. When it’s a food she’s hesitant about, I’ll put a bite on the fork and hand it to her. She’s often more willing to put something in her mouth if she gets to use a fork like everyone else.
How do you deal with the mess?
If you are opposed to messy babies at the dinner table, then baby-led weaning might not be for you! I highly recommend using a splat mat or a plastic tablecloth under your baby’s high chair, because there will be plenty of food on the floor. We use a long-sleeved bib to keep her as clean as possible. She goes straight from the highchair to the bathtub more nights than not, but the loads of messy baby photos make it worth it!
Can you share some of the foods you’ve offered?
I try to offer her everything we cook, assuming it’s healthy and easily modified for little hands. Our pediatrician even recommended offering common allergens on a weekly basis (but save honey for after their first birthday). We rarely avoid anything except junk food.
Here are some of Polly’s favorite foods:
- Meats: grilled meats torn into manageable pieces, shredded chicken or pork, sliced deli meat (avoid nitrates and added salt or sugar), ground beef, chicken salad loaded onto a spoon, flaky fish, shrimp
- Grains: brown rice, lentil noodles or white pasta (we prefer farfalle and fusilli since they are easy to pick up), whole wheat waffles, French toast or pancake “fingers,” unsalted rice cakes, finger sandwiches, dry cereal, oatmeal, mini muffins
- Fruits: bananas, strawberries, blueberries, clementines, pineapple, watermelon, cantaloupe, apples (bake or shred if under age two)
- Vegetables: broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, potatoes, yams, corn, carrots, avocados (spread onto a rice cake or served sliced), peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, celery (strings removed)
- Other: eggs (not a fan, but we still offer occasionally), guacamole, cheese, yogurt, Fig Newtons, applesauce
I shared a companion post on my own blog today and would love to invite you stop by. I’m sharing our favorite Baby Led Weaning products, what our one year old daughter eats in a day, and a compilation of videos from our last six months of infant meals!