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What is Baby-Led Weaning? How to Help Your Baby Feed Themselves

It's a familiar when a mom or dad is delivering sweet potato purée into Baby's wide-open mouth via that special airplane spoon—complete with sound effects and announcements from the cockpit. But for the parents who practice baby-led weaning, the pattern of baby's mealtimes looks much different: The youngest member of the family sits in the high chair before a spread of finger foods, attempting to transfer the bits from tray to tongue all by themselves. Here are some benefits of this feeding method, with tips for how to start baby-led weaning yourself.


The Benefits of Baby-Led Weaning

In a nutshell, baby-led weaning means skipping spoon-feeding purees and letting babies feed themselves finger foods right from the start at about age 6 months. For starters, it helps fine-tune motor development of hand-eye coordination, chewing skills, dexterity, and healthy eating habits. It also offers babies an opportunity to explore the taste, texture, aroma, and color of a variety of foods. It's also an early and very important step for babies in learning self-regulation; learning to stop eating when they feel full.


When To Start Baby-Led Weaning

Most healthy children over 6 months of age should be able to sit in a high chair unassisted, have good neck strength, and be able to move food to the back of their mouth with up and down jaw movements. Weaning should be continue with breastmilk or formula as it's the baby's biggest source of nutrition until he or she is 10 to 12 months old.


The Best Baby-Led Weaning Foods

You may see photos on baby-led-weaning Facebook pages of baby's chowing down on all sorts of improbable foods, from drumsticks to casseroles. But most experts recommend beginning more slowly. Start with single-ingredient foods so you'll be able to pinpoint any food allergies.

Examples of first finger foods include banana, avocado, steamed broccoli florets with a stalk "handle," baked sliced apple without the peel, moist and shredded meats, poached and flaked salmon, pasta, omelets cut into pieces, or strips of chicken.

Substantial-size pieces cut in long, thin strips, coin-shaped, or with a crinkle cutter are easiest for your baby to manage. That's because very few 6- to 8-month-olds have mastered the pincer grasp (thumb and index finger), so they'll pick up foods with their whole palm. Once your baby develops this pincer grasp, around 8 to 9 months, serve food cut into small pieces, like ripe mango chunks, cooked beans, chopped steamed spinach, and pieces of pasta.

Also remember that texture is key. The food you give your novice eater should be soft and easy to smash with gentle pressure between your thumb and forefinger. Once your baby has tried and tolerated several single-ingredient foods, you can begin offering mixed dishes. Make sure there are high-calorie foods and those with iron, zinc, protein, and healthy fats on the tray.


What If Your Baby Chokes?

Most babies are surprisingly adept at managing finger foods, but gagging is very common in the early days of eating. It's a normal and reflexive safety mechanism that might cause watery eyes, coughing, or sputtering. But parents should understand that gagging is a safe reflex to get rid of food that is a little too challenging. Your baby will learn from your reaction: If you are scared, she will get scared, too.

Avoid this by staying away from choking hazards such as grapes, hot dogs, raisins, popcorn, raw vegetables, and sticky nut butters. As a precaution, always stay with your baby when they eat, and make sure they're sitting up.

To be safe, follow these rules:

  • Always stay with your baby while they eat.
  • Make sure your baby is sitting up when eating.
  • Serve foods that aren't too hard. Raw apples are one of the biggest choking hazards for baby-led-weaning babies.
  • Do not rush to help your baby if they gag. Babies sense parents' panic and can develop negative associations with eating. Instead, stay calm and give them time to work it out.


Tips for Baby-Led Weaning Success

Prepare For Messes. The goal of baby-led weaning is to let your little one explore food at their own pace, so that means smashing it, smearing it, dropping it, and probably making a big old mess at nearly every meal. It's an essential milestone in learning to love a variety of nourishing foods. Your floor will likely see the worst of it. You can place a garbage bag or a plastic tablecloth under the high chair for easy cleanup, replace your baby's bib with an art smock, and balance messy foods with less-messy ones (like dry cereal or toast) when feeding.

Dine Together. Allow your baby to eat at the table during family meals. Even better: Give your baby some of the same ingredients that make up your dish.

Let Your Baby Use Safe Utensils. It's key to encourage your baby to start participating in the delivery of food early on. Let your baby reach for the spoon and guide it to his mouth with or without your help Make sure the baby is leading the process. Avoid toothpicks or other skewers.

Don't Get Overly Heated Or Emotional. Eating should be treated as a natural and expected part of the day. Don't praise, pressure, or scold about eating.