Today we look at the topic of baby-led weaning in a follow-up to our last post all about traditional weaning. But what is baby-led weaning? How is it different to traditional weaning and what are its potential benefits? Let’s take a look.
What is Baby-Led Weaning?
Baby-led weaning is the process of letting your baby feed themselves pieces of appropriate ‘finger food’ i.e. by picking them up with their fingers. This is in contrast to a parent/carer feeding a baby puréed or mashed food via a spoon. But which method is best? Well, although some parents have a preferred method, there is currently no compelling evidence proving that one or other is the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ method. Indeed, some parents may wish to combine both approaches. More often than not, whether a baby gets on better with traditional spoon-feeding, baby-led finger food meals or a combination of the two comes down to what suits your baby or yourself best. There are some considerations, though.
What are the Benefits of Baby-Led Weaning?
While traditional weaning has its own benefits, baby-led weaning has it’s own set too:
- Baby-led weaning encourages the baby to learn to chew, even if that means they first learn to ‘gum’ food before swallowing (especially if they, like most babies, don’t yet have teeth). This chewing element is all good practice of a new skill that they don’t yet need with the traditional purée approach.
- This means they’re strengthening their face muscles and jaws and learning to better control mouth and tongue movements.
- Baby-led weaning encourages development of fine motor skills. Picking up the food themselves means infants are using a mix of finger and hand movements, honing hand-eye coordination and also practising hand-to-mouth actions.
- Baby-led weaning lets the baby go at their own pace. They are in control of their feeding and not being governed by the parents pushing spoons at them. That’s potentially much more relaxed as a feeding mechanism.
- It may also encourage them to eat a healthier diet later on. As they grow, they are sampling foods and textures in their true state, not processed into an unrecognisable purée or mash.
- Baby-led weaning may even help to reduce child obesity as the child is totally in control of their food intake. They can stop feeding when full, which is somewhat in contrast to being led by parents feeding via a spoon.
As we said above, though, it’s up to parents to decide which of the two weaning approaches they prefer. Indeed many will use a combination of both traditional and baby-led weaning. The important thing is to ensure that your baby gets all the vitamins and nutrients that are essential to good health and development. A varied diet will help with that.
When to Begin Baby-Led Weaning
Except in special cases, it is normal to start any kind of weaning around the age of six months and the same is true for baby-led weaning. This is usually done by introducing a just small amount of solids per day initially. This can be done at any time of the day and does not have to follow usual feeding times. The idea of the small initial introduction is to get your infant used to taking solids in addition to their breast or formula milk. Indeed, their milk remains the most important part of their diet right up until the age of one.
It is common for babies to be reluctant at first, so don’t worry if they reject the food at first. Try again another day, again with just a small amount. Remember your little one is getting used to new tastes, textures and a completely different feeding process that’s in complete contrast to what they’ve been used to with only milk. So, some initial resistance is likely.
Which Foods to Try First
Firstly, remember that weaning is the process of gradually changing over from milk to solids. So, for at least the first year, the baby should continue to drink milk (breast milk or first infant formula) alongside any solids that you are introducing from the age of 6 months. What’s more, it’s sensible to give the solids first, then feed milk afterwards, otherwise the baby’s tiny stomach may fill up on milk and leave no room for the new solids. Cows’ milk should not be used before the age of 12 months, unless used as an ingredient in cooked (i.e. heated) meals.
Also important never give any hard foods like uncooked vegetables or hard fruit to babies/infants as they will not be able to ‘gum’ it. Moreover, hard pieces like those represent a possible choking hazard. The food pieces therefore need to be soft enough for you to be able to mash with your fingers — and therefore for your toddler to bite or ‘gum’. After all, most at this age will have no teeth. So, keep it soft and cut into small, finger-sized (narrow baton shaped) pieces for your baby to hold and, hopefully, self-feed from the top end downwards. Avoid round shapes and firm foods and always stay with your child when they’re feeding.
Fruit and vegetables are probably the easiest finger foods to start with.
- Vegetables like carrots, broccoli, potato, yam and/or parsnips can all be boiled until soft, suitably cooled for safety and cut up into the small, finger-sized pieces.
- Banana can also easily be given as finger food because it’s a suitably soft fruit.
- Very soft pears may also suit, although harder pears and apples should be part-boiled until soft enough. Again, ensure they are suitably cooled before serving.
It’s wise, though, not to give your child too many sweet-tasting foods (e.g. sweet potato, carrots, fruit) and ensure they’re also getting plenty of the less sweet food types included in the listings above. Otherwise they may miss some of the more subtle flavours and naturally gravitate towards sweeter tastes. In so doing, they run the risk of getting a ‘sweet tooth’ that’s not particularly good for them.
Between 6 to 7 months, additional soft foods can be given as finger foods. So, you could add small fingers of ripe avocado, ripe (i.e. soft) mango and soft melon. You can also try your infant on soft cheese fingers using mozzarella or ricotta (never before 6 months though), so long as they’re made from pasteurised milk and are not mould-ripened (like Brie), veined (like Stilton) nor made from ripened goats’ cheese. Cheeses high in salt and saturated fats should also be avoided for the young. Omelette fingers are also a good choice, so long as the eggs are fully cooked and anything added to a Spanish omelette (e.g. vegetables) is also sufficiently soft.
From 8 to 9 months, try adding thinly sliced strawberries, raspberries and/or blueberries. You can also try your little one with steamed or boiled (then suitably cooled) green beans and peas. Cooked and cooled whole wheat pasta, hummus and minced chicken, turkey or beef may also be appealing to your little one. From 9 months your infant’s fine motor skills will be more refined and their improved grip will now allow them to pick up tiny pieces of bite-sized food, hence adding some of those smaller items from this age. Soon, they may also be able to copy your use of a spoon, so encourage this by giving them a soft weaning spoon. It may take a while, but they’ll eventually get the hang of it.
By the age of 10 to 12 months, your little one’s food offerings start to look much more similar to standard family meals. For example they may have progressed to cooked pasta and cut-up meatballs (or the vegetarian/vegan equivalent). They may now enjoy pitta bread pieces with hummus, perhaps cut-up cheese sandwiches (see aforementioned note about cheeses and also avoid bread that’s got added salt). Steamed/boiled potatoes or vegetables with shredded chicken, turkey or beef are another option – all, of course, suitably cooled and cut into small pieces for the child.
While they are progressing from 6 months to a year, ensure you gradually introduce more of the important food types (fruit and veg, starchy foods, proteins and dairy). Ensure they try a variety of tastes and textures too.
More Information about Weaning
The NHS has lots of useful information about weaning. Watch a useful NHS video and learn more about weaning infants, including a few safety tips, here.
Ensure you are fully familiar with all the potential safety issues and precautions around weaning before you start the process. In particular, make sure you are up to speed about what to do if your baby chokes and never allow your infant to feed without constant vigilance and supervision. We outlined several safety suggestions in our last post (available here) to get you started. A more detailed NHS guide about Safe Weaning is also available here (don’t miss each of the pale blue ‘tabs’ as each has hidden information that’s incredibly useful and important).
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