In the ‘good old days’, babies were weaned at around 4 months old.  Without the ability to sit unaided, to pick up their own food and co-ordinate hand-eye movements to get the food into their mouths and with a digestive system that wasn’t developed enough to cope with lumpy food, pureeing was a must.  However, since the government changed its advice to start weaning babies at six months, the need for pureeing baby food has been questioned, along with the suggestion that your baby can go straight to lumpy food. Find out what it’s all about and how to wean the baby-led way!

What is baby-led weaning?

Baby-led weaning involves offering a healthy variety of finger foods, provided your baby is able to sit up straight, and is accompanied at all times, so that he is able to feed himself with his hands. As long as there are no known allergies in the family, you can give your child pretty much anything, except for whole nuts if your child is under five. This approach takes a leap of faith for many parents, but the benefits are great.

Why is baby-led weaning becoming more popular?

One reason is that most of us are weaning our babies a little later these days. When we weaned our babies at four months, we needed to offer them purees because, at that age, they still can’t hold their heads up consistently or make the “munching” movements needed to eat solid foods.

However, most of us are now weaning our babies at six months, and six-month-olds can sit up straight in a highchair, reach out and grasp objects with their hands and also “munch” on solids foods (actual chewing movements kick in a little later at around seven or eight months). In other words they have all the skills they need to feed themselves.

What are the advantages of baby-led weaning?

Allowing babies to feed themselves from the word go means they are less likely to have problems with “lumps” later on (lots of babies find the transition from smooth purees to lumpier foods tricky). It also allows babies to eat with the family rather having separate meals prepared for them.

Parents who’ve tried baby-led weaning claim it helps to avoid picky eating as well.

Then, of course, there’s the convenience – no purees means no need for food processors, jars, spoons, bowls or ice cube trays.

What are the disadvantages?

One of the main drawbacks with baby-led weaning is that it’s messy. Chances are that much of what you offer your baby to begin with will end up on the floor once it’s been thoroughly squidged, squeezed and gummed. Although you won’t have the inconvenience of preparing purees, you will need to allow your baby plenty of time to eat. It’ll be a little while before she masters the art of grasping foods, moving them to her mouth and chewing them efficiently.

Some health professionals also question whether babies who feed themselves get as many nutrients as babies fed on purees. It’s important to make sure that you are giving your baby a good range of foods.  At six months, the iron reserves your baby was born with start to run out, so it’s important to offer  plenty of iron-rich foods, such as red meat, slices of well-cooked egg, mini Weetabix, fish (check for bones first), baked beans and other pulses.

How to do baby-led weaning

  • Do not start before your child is six months old. Your baby’s neck muscles need to be strong enough to allow him to sit upright properly and he needs to have the reflexes and coordination to grasp objects in his fists.
  • Make sure you follow government guidelines about which foods are safe for your baby’s age and which aren’t.
  • Avoid foods that are high in salt and sugar.
  • Never leave your baby to eat unsupervised.
  • Try to eat with your baby – babies learn by imitation and she’ll quickly pick up tips from you.
  • Offer your baby foods that are easy to handle, such a sticks of cooked carrot or bread soldiers.
  • Be prepared for mess! A coverall bib and a splatter mat are usually a must for all baby-led weaners.  Likewise go for a basic highchair without lots of hard to clean crevices and cushions – you’ll be amazed where broccoli can end up!
  • Skip the bowl – that’s just something for your baby to throw, play with or use to distract themselves from the matter at hand, eating!
  • Make sure you give your baby plenty of time to eat – she’s still learning new skills after all.
  • You don’t need to offer cutlery until around nine months when your baby has become competent at feeding herself and physically mature enough to handle a spoon and get it in her mouth!

Won’t my baby choke?

While babies often gag on foods, they very rarely choke. Advocates of baby-led weaning claim that choking is actually more likely when babies are fed from a spoon because the sucking motion they use to remove food from the spoon moves food straight to the back of the throat, you do not need to offer cutlery until your baby is around nine months by which time she is physically mature enough to handle one and get it in her mouth. When babies feeds themselves, it’s argued, they are less likely to choke because they have complete control over what they put into their mouths and how quickly they eat it. Even so, it’s important to stay with your baby while she’s eating as a precaution and ensure that she is sitting up straight.

Getting started – finger foods to try

  • Cooked sticks/slices/chunks of carrot, broccoli, sweet potato, potato, courgette, butternut squash, apple
  • Raw slices/chunks of banana, avocado, peaches, pears, melon, cucumber
  • Cooked rice
  • Citrus fruits and strawberries
  • Cooked pasta, with or without sauce
  • Cubes or fingers of bread/toast/pitta
  • Cheese – cut into sticks or grated
  • Pieces of cooked fish or meat
  • Yoghurt/fromage frais (check for sugar content)
  • Low-sugar/salt breakfast cereal
  • Chopped hard boiled egg

Remember that any food is baby food really if you’re baby-led weaning, as long as it doesn’t contain salt or sugar and it’s the right size for your baby to be able to pick up and hold (this will obviously get smaller as your baby’s hand-eye co-ordination and pincer grip develop).