Dietitian Q&A: What is “baby-led weaning?”

First things first: What is baby-led weaning?

Baby-led weaning is a method of feeding babies complementary foods (i.e., foods other than breastmilk or infant formula that are introduced to provide nutrients to an infant). This method skips spoon-fed pureed foods and moves to family foods that babies can hold and feed to themselves.

What are the perceived pros and cons of baby-led weaning?

Proponents believe this type of feeding helps regulate babies’ appetite and promote healthy growth. Critics fear choking and lower intake of energy and dietary iron and zinc (two key nutrients for infants older than 6 months of age).

The verdict is still out on what is the best way to introduce babies to complementary foods, but it is being studied in a randomized control trial in New Zealand called The Baby-Led Introduction to Solids (BLISS) study.

For an infant who is growing well and meeting developmental milestones, baby-led weaning is a feeding option that puts the child in the proverbial driver’s seat by promoting self-feeding and sensory exploration and by encouraging family-centered mealtime with less emphasis on highly processed or prepackaged toddler foods.

How should parents and caregivers prepare food using a baby-led approach to complementary feeding?

Most babies can be introduced to complementary foods around 6 months of age – but parents and caregivers should, of course, check with their pediatrician.

To start, the baby is offered foods that are approximately the size of an adult’s finger – this size helps them hold onto it. Food should be cooked to the point where baby can ‘squash’ it on the roof of their mouth using their tongue. This feeding method encourages parents to relax and allow baby to explore new foods with the hope that, as they become familiar with foods and eating, their acceptance of taste and texture will continue to increase.

Is baby-led weaning appropriate for all infants?

For infants with developmental delay or medical conditions, this feeding approach is not ideal in its purest form and could actually be harmful. In some infants, the developmental readiness for self-feeding and safe swallowing may not be in line with nutritional needs for micronutrients or energy, and so spoon-fed pureed foods are needed to promote growth and maintain feeding safety.

Is there anything else parents and caregivers should know about baby-led weaning?

While we don’t know if baby-led introduction of solids is a “superior” method of feeding healthy infants, it does offer some very nice ideas for food introduction, whole food options and infant-driven feeding exploration (with all of its mess and awesome sensory input)!

Remember, baby should not be given foods unattended and infants and toddlers should always be seated while eating. Waiting until a baby can “hold” a food on their own may delay introduction. On a large scale, a change in feeding recommendations could affect the incidence of food allergy or flavor acceptance. A shift in feeding advice soon is unlikely, but we do look forward to analysis of BLISS study data.

How do I know my baby is ready for complementary foods?

  • Improved head control and sitting
  • Paying attention to parents eating
  • Diminishing tongue-thrust reflex
  • Mouthing hands and toys and reaching for food

If we decide to try baby-led weaning, what are some foods we could try?

  • Tender cooked finger-sized pieces of cooked vegetable, such as zucchini, sweet potato, carrots, parsnip, broccoli or cauliflower
  • Sliced avocado, banana, mango or tender peach or pear
  • Toast with spreads such as nut butter, bean dip or hummus
  • Tender pieces of pasta, pancake or waffle. (Note: it’s OK to dip in yogurt to soften.)
  • Hard-cooked egg, tender smoked salmon, chickpea patties, cooked beans and legumes

 

April Mitsch, M.S., R.D.N., IBCLC
Assistant Professor, Pediatrics
Feeding Clinic Dietitian
Child Development Rehabilitation Center
Institute of Developmental Disabilities
Oregon Health Science University

 

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