Baby-led weaning is a hot topic in the world of first foods. Feeding expert Annabel Karmel explains what it is and whether it’s right for you
What is baby-led weaning?
“Traditionally, weaning is taken to mean introducing well-mashed or puréed foods from around six months. The ethos behind baby-led weaning is that you can skip the puréeing and instead offer your baby a number of different foods they can pick up and eat themselves.
“This approach presents your baby with a wide variety of foods at an early age. You allow them to decide what foods they want to eat and how much. Babies learn to manage different shapes and textures from the very start of their weaning journey and as a result become skilled at handling a wide range of foods under your supervision.
“Baby-led weaning can also encourage your baby to join in with family mealtimes and tuck into foods the whole family are enjoying, provided you stick to the right foods and don’t add extra salt. These combined elements lead to the view that your baby will go on to develop healthy eating habits for life.”
Is baby-led weaning right for me and my baby?
“Some babies take to feeding themselves early and easily and these are often the ones who reject spoon-feeding altogether. In these cases, it makes sense to explore baby-led weaning. However, some babies’ motor skills are slower to develop and they won’t grasp self-feeding until much later.
“Babies who don’t take to textured food as well as others need a more gradual transition from milk to solids. This is where some form of puréeing or mashing of nutrient-rich food becomes very important. Your baby should start moving towards a more varied diet from around 6 months onwards whichever method you choose, as they’ll begin to need nutrients that can’t be fully gained from breast or formula milk alone.*
“Every baby’s development is different and waiting until your little one is ready helps to reduce the risk of choking. Whether you’re feeding purées or adopting baby-led weaning (or both), take your time and follow the signs – it’s important to start weaning only when your baby shows that they are ready.”
How do I know when my baby is ready for baby-led weaning?
“It’s important to follow your intuition and your baby’s development but there a few tell-tale signs that suggest they’re ready to start feeding themselves:
- They can sit up unassisted
- They have lost the tongue-thrust reflex – this is where they automatically push solids out of their mouth with their tongue
- They have developed sufficient hand-to-eye coordination to pick up food and put it in their mouth
- They are able to chew, even if they have few or no teeth
- They show an interest in food
“It’s worth noting that as you get started with baby-led weaning your baby may just play with the food. This is normal and all part of their development. They will soon progress to sucking, chewing and swallowing.”
How do I start baby-led weaning?
“You can read this full list of good foods to start with – and what to avoid – but here are a few tips for getting started:
- Start with softer finger foods such as cooked sticks of carrot, broccoli and sweet potato, and chunks of avocado and banana. I would suggest cutting food into 5-6cm batons or sticks so that half is held in a baby’s hand and the other half sticks out.
- Remember that your baby must never be left alone while eating, they must be seated in an upright position and, once they are finished, be sure to check their cheeks for any lumps of uneaten food. They can fit a surprising amount in there!
- Don’t overwhelm them with too many options at the start. It’s a success if they try even just a couple of pieces of food, or a small portion of a family meal.
- Let them pick up food with their fingers – they will only pick up foods they can manage. At this age their gag reflex is triggered towards the front of the tongue (unlike adults where it’s much further back), which is why finger foods are great from 6 months as they can learn to chew and swallow safely.
- Don’t bother serving meals on plates or in bowls when you start out. A lot of the food you give them will most likely end up on the floor! Just put food straight onto their highchair tray but make sure you’ve given it a thorough clean first to get rid of any germs.
- Invest in a wipe-clean bib and a splash mat for the floor as things might get a bit messy – a shower curtain will do the job cheaply and effectively.
- It’s important not to rush your baby, try to make them finish a set amount or eat a specific food. It’s up to them how much or little they want to eat. Don’t worry about the amount they eat at the beginning because milk is still their main source of nutrients. The best thing you can do is serve a variety of tastes and textures to get their journey to fuss-free eating off to a flying start.”
Can I combine two approaches?
“Absolutely. Some parents choose to go with one method or the other, but our research among parents found that 81% wanted to explore the best of both worlds – spoon feeding purées while also giving their baby the chance to take the lead and enjoy soft finger foods, as well as a few tastes of appropriate family meals. What’s important is that you choose what’s right for you and your baby.
“My new Annabel Karmel Baby-Led Weaning Recipe Book can be used on its own for baby-led weaning, or alongside my original feeding guide, the New Complete Baby & Toddler Meal Planner, which is filled with my popular purée recipes. Combining both methods is a popular option and one that many parents are finding the most realistic to adopt. Offer a variety of foods, allow your baby to go at their own pace and enjoy watching them start their weaning journey.”
Annabel Karmel’s brand new Baby- Led Weaning Recipe Book gives you the tools and inspiration to incorporate baby-led weaning into your baby’s routine. It can be used on its own for exclusive baby-led weaning. Or, it can be used as acompanion cookbook to Annabel’s original feeding guide, the New Complete Baby & Toddler Meal Planner, which is filled with her popular purée recipes.
As well as being packed with useful advice and top tips, the book is filled with 210 recipes for the whole family to enjoy together – from breakfast and snacks, to vegetables, poultry, fish, meat and more.
*The World Health Organisation recommends exclusive breastfeeding up to six months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond.