While baby-led feeding is not appropriate or recommended for all children, some studies suggest that feeding your baby a variety of wholesome solid foods can encourage them to fine-tune their motor skills and even help them grow up to be healthier eaters. Read the guidelines outlined below to learn how to safely incorporate this practice into your day-to-day life.
What Is Baby-Led Feeding?
Baby-led feeding is a practice whereby parents let their baby aged 6 months or older feed themselves with appropriately-sized solids and finger foods, rather than being hand-fed puréed, foods at every meal.
Baby-led feeding is sometimes referred to as baby-led weaning, or “BLW” for short. Baby-led weaning is a UK term that, although it implies stopping breastfeeding, has the exact same definition as baby-led feeding. This has created some confusion among American parents, who only associate weaning with stopping breastfeeding. For clarity’s sake, American texts tend to refer to it only as “baby-led feeding” or “self-feeding.”
What Are The Purported Benefits of Baby-Led Feeding?
There are number of practical and developmental benefits of baby-led feeding that has made it more appealing to parents, including:
- Encourages babies to learn to gum, chew and swallow their food independently
- Prevents parents from having to actively “push” food
- Babies may be less likely to become overweight than spoon-fed children
- Develops baby’s hand-to-eye coordination and manual dexterity
- Exposes baby to a greater variety of flavors and textures
- Increases likelihood of children enjoying a healthy variety of foods later in life
- Teaches babies self-regulation (or learning how to recognize satiety)
- Saves parents money on jarred baby food
- Saves parents time preparing, blending, and storing homemade food
How To Safely Start Baby-Led Feeding
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the best time to start babies on solid foods is around 6 months. At this time, most babies are able to sit up independently, have good neck strength, can move their jaw up and down, and can easily grasp objects. Moreover, their digestive systems have developed enough enzymes to properly absorb solid food, and they have stopped automatically pushing substances out of their mouths (known as the “tongue-thrust reflex.”)
Some parents feel apprehensive about the safety surrounding baby-led feeding, however, there is little evidence to support an increased risk of choking associated with this practice. As long as parents are sure to avoid the choking hazards outlined below, studies have found that infants following a baby-led feeding approach do not appear more likely to choke than babies that follow traditional feeding. It’s also important to remember that baby-led feeding, although a relatively newly coined term, was practiced for thousands of years before commercially-available baby foods were an option.
Baby-led weaning, although a viable option for some, is not for all children. Some babies simply don’t acclimate to this feeding approach, and those with developmental delays or neurological issues may have to follow more traditional feeding methods. Consult with a pediatrician if you have questions about if or how you can explore baby-led feeding with a special needs child.
Important Safety Tips For Baby-Led Feeding
- Do not serve the following foods, as they are choking hazards: Nuts, seeds, whole cherries and grapes, large chunks of cheese/meat, apples with the skin, nuts, raw vegetables, hard fruit, popcorn, and food cut into coin shapes.
- Make sure your baby is seated in an upright position in a highchair.
- Always supervise during feedings; never leave a baby alone with food.
- Let all caregivers know about this practice so they can follow the same safety measures.
- Consult with a pediatrician if you still have doubts or concerns.
How To Practice Baby-Led Feeding
- Gradually transition from purées to solids
Introducing a baby to solid foods straight away can be off-putting to them, so it’s best to make a slow but steady shift from liquid to soft, mushy consistencies. Make sure the pieces are easy for your baby to pick up.
- Expose your baby to different textures
Whether it’s tender-cooked, puréed, minced, mashed, or finely ground up, it’s important to introduce your baby to a variety of textures so that they are less likely to be picky eaters.
- Start with one or two pieces
It’s important not to overwhelm your baby with a pile of food when you introduce solids. One or two “sticks” of food, such as bananas or avocados, are all you need to get your baby used to the appearance and mouthfeel of solids.
- Cut food into strips, not bite-sized pieces
Slice each of the foods so that your child can easily clench them in their fist and chew on it from the top down. It’s easier for babies to pick up and hold onto strips rather than tiny, bite-sized pieces. It will also teach them how to chew their own food.
- Don’t force it
If your baby is still nursing or bottle-fed, they may not eat very much solid food at all in the first few months of baby-led feeding, and that’s okay. They are still getting most of their nutrition from breast milk and/or formula, so allow them to come into solid foods at their own pace.
- Have dinner with your baby
Babies learn to mimic their caregivers’ behaviors very quickly, so it’s good practice to let them watch you eat solid foods as they learn to do the same. If your baby reaches for a piece of food on your own plate, cut it up and let them try a baby-sized portion of it, assuming it is safe for them to eat.
- Skip the utensils and plates
Make it easy on yourself and place food directly on the baby’s highchair tray. Baby-sized utensils, plates, and bowls will likely end up on the floor anyway, and your baby will enjoy a more hands-on, exploratory approach to eating by picking up food with their own hands.
The Best Foods For Baby-Led Feeding
Consider offering food from each of the following food groups so that your baby is getting a well-rounded diet. As always, make sure that the food is no larger than your baby’s fist, and be sure to account for any apparent food allergies.
Aim to incorporate a balance of iron-rich protein, fruits or vegetables, and starch in each meal. Make sure to discuss your child’s diet with your pediatrician to make sure they are getting appropriate nutrition. A sample baby-led dinner could include cooked pasta with tomato sauce, a couple of chopped up meatballs, steamed green beans, and a few strips of watermelon. Other ideas include:
- Grains - Soft-cooked whole wheat pasta.
- Protein - Boiled pieces of chicken, cut-up eggs.
- Fruits and vegetables - Steamed vegetables, soft spears of banana, pear, sliced strawberries
- Dairy - Soft cheeses like cottage cheese, yogurt.
Capital Area Pediatrics provides superior care to patients from birth through adolescence throughout Northern Virginia. If you are concerned about your child’s eating habits, growth, or development, call our office to set up an appointment. We are currently offering telemedicine visits for those who prefer to stay home, as well as touchless check-in to minimize the spread of COVID-19. You can also request an appointment online.