What is Baby Led Weaning, How to Do It & Why You’d Want To!

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Baby led weaning doesn’t actually have much to do with weaning at all, if you’re thinking of the weaning off of formula or breastmilk. What does baby led weaning really mean?  It means skipping pureed baby food in favor of real food. During pregnancy, mothers face many challenges when it comes to feeding their babies. Let me help you make a decision about it.

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Why Not Use Pureed Baby Food?

Skipping purees is not actually as crazy as it sounds. Pureed baby food was an invention by baby food companies as a way to sell more products. First, formula companies advertised their products as being healthier for babies than breastmilk. But, babies can’t have formula forever. So, what was the natural next step for formula companies? Baby food!

If babies have been drinking milk or formula for the first four to six months of their life and formula companies wanted to make food feasible, what better way to do it than to make it similar to the consistency of milk? Blended baby food, fed with a small spoon, became the way to introduce babies to food. As the baby ages, the food increases in texture, and combinations are added. That’s why you see baby food in “stages” in the grocery store. Logical, right?

What if, though, babies don’t need pureed baby food at all? As it turns out, they don’t. Breastfed babies will get a majority of their nutrients from breastmilk through their infancy and toddlerhood. The introduction of food at four to six months is beneficial for setting up healthy eating habits so that by the time they’re a toddler eating regular meals, they’re not just eating mac n cheese and toast. Baby led weaning helps set up lifelong healthy food habits.

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If a baby is formula-fed, they’re still getting most of their nutrients from formula, until they’re a year. Then the combination of milk and healthy food provides a healthy nutritional start for a toddler. Either way, purees aren’t mandatory.

When you look at it this way, pureed baby food can be a wasted financial or time expense (if you make your own purees). You already eat regular food. Why not give your baby some of what you’re likely already eating and put the time and money towards something else?

What Do You Feed a Baby?

Now, how can you feed a baby real food? You don’t, exactly. Baby led weaning is a natural process. Let’s first discuss the one thing parents fear most: choking. Baby led weaning, done correctly, will not cause choking.

To discuss baby biology, infants have their gag reflex in their mouths, not way back in their throats, the way adults do. This means they’re much more likely to gag as they learn to eat. Gagging is not choking. Gagging helps them move food OUT of their mouth, should they have accidentally bitten off more than they can gum. That scares some parents out of baby led weaning, but that doesn’t need to be the case. Gagging can be avoided, for the most part.

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When Do You Give a Baby Real Food?

Every year or two, a new study comes out saying that it’s better to give a baby food beginning at either four or six months. With that in mind, there’s no rush. If, after four months of age, you want to sit your baby in a high chair and offer a large piece of steamed broccoli or sweet potato when you eat dinner, go for it, however, the World Health Organization and American Academy of Pediatrics both recommend waiting until six months to begin solids. 

The difference between whether you begin giving your infant food at four or six months largely has to do with the readiness of the baby’s digestive system. Studies continue to give new information on this subject. So, while your in-laws (or nosy strangers) may be eager for you to feed your baby cereal or solids, there’s no need to give them food prior to six months. In fact, studies show feeding babies solids prior to four months causes an increase in food allergies later. Four months is the earliest food of any sort should be given to a baby.

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If your baby is underweight and your pediatrician recommends starting foods at four months, then do so. At that point, they’ll likely recommend an iron-fortified baby cereal, which you will be feeding your baby with a spoon. Otherwise, waiting until closer to or after six months to begin solids is the better option for your little one’s long term health.

What Food Do You Give a Baby?

When it’s time to start your baby on solids, the general guideline is to introduce one food item every three days, so as to make sure there aren’t allergies. If you give your baby several new items each day and an allergy occurs, it’s difficult to determine what caused the reaction.

The easiest way to select your baby’s first foods is to look at exactly what flavors are available in Stage One baby food purees. Steamed sweet potatoes, broccoli, carrots, and green beans are excellent first foods.

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Fruits aren’t advisable because, well, we know fruit is delicious. They’re going to love it. Delaying exposure to sugar can help decrease the future incidence of a sweet tooth. Why not give them the opportunity to love vegetables, first? Also, many fruits are acidic, which can lead to diaper rash. Skip fruit until they’re closer to a year if you want to set up the best nutritional habits possible for your little one.

Lastly, if a baby doesn’t appear to like a vegetable, continue to give it to them. Children who are given a food item 6-10 times will later have a greater likelihood of developing a preference for that item, regardless of what it is.

How Do You Give Solid Food to a Baby?

The best guideline when steaming vegetables is to make the pieces large enough they can easily pick them up. Exploration is a big part of their introduction to food, and it can take up to twenty (yes, twenty!) tries before a little one likes a specific item.

They’re too young to really dislike anything yet. In fact, their first few times trying the food, they may not understand it at all at first, and instead, they may look at it, touch it to their mouth, and call it a day.

As they get older, you can incorporate smaller bits of food, like peas. Smaller pieces of food are also great for developing their fine motor skills.

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You may have noticed that there’s been no mention of feeding the baby. …That’s for good reason. With baby led weaning, babies feed themselves. There’s no need for forks or spoons, though you can set them out with their meal. They’ll experiment with them as they model the behavior of the adults around them. Either way, toddlers still won’t have the motor skills to use their fork and spoon effectively until close to 18 months of age.

Don’t be sad about not making airplane noses as you attempt to shovel mashed peas towards your infant’s face. Baby led weaning cuts out the whole parent-as-food-warden-middle-man aspect of mealtime. There’s no begging the child to have one more bite because they stop when they’re done. (Or, when they throw food. Then they’re definitely done.) Baby led weaning gives tiny humans a tiny sense of autonomy. Cool, right?

When Do You Give a Baby Food?

For many families, dinner is the only time of day when everyone sits down to the table. If that’s the case for your family, then dinner is when your baby can have their “meal.” If your family is very prone to food allergies, though, you may want to consider having your baby’s meal at lunchtime. 

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A lunchtime meal gives you more of the day to observe your infant for any possible allergic reactions, rather than feeding them, bathing them, and getting them to bed for the night. Some allergies pop up immediately with a facial rash. Others can take 4-8 hours to appear, with the allergy exhibiting itself with signs like diarrhea or intestinal upset.

What are Toddler Serving Sizes for Food?

The hand-sized guidelines for adults are the same as for children. A serving of protein is the size of the palm of a hand, a closed fist is a fruit or raw veggies, a cupped hand is pasta or rice, a thumb is hard cheese/peanut butter/healthy fats, and a thumbnail is fats like butter or olive oil.

Remember, though, that most infants and toddlers will stop when they’re no longer hungry, so there isn’t a risk of them overeating. By allowing babies to feed themselves, they’re setting themselves up for healthier food habits later on in life.

Conversely, if purees and cereals are deemed necessary, then following baby’s cues and stopping feeding then when they turn their head away, arch their backs, or wave their hands is paramount.

Following a baby’s eating cues, whether in a baby led weaning or a pureed food approach is important to prevent later toddler food struggles and the “just one more bite!” food negotiations.

Also, check the Best Baby Led Weaning First Foods (Guide & Timeline) for more ideas.

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Is Baby Led Weaning More Work?

Yes and no. Initially, it’s messier than if you feed the infant with a spoon, however, as they get older, they grow to expect to eat whatever mommy and daddy eat at mealtime, so it’s easier in that regard.

Baby led weaning may more work earlier on, as well, as it may mean adjusting your own dinner routine to make it healthy enough to share with your infant.

Lastly, baby led weaning may take longer per meal as the infant (then a toddler) leisurely eats their meal. That’s actually a huge benefit to the parents, though. Studies show that toddlers who spend longer eating are less likely to become obese as they get older.

Enjoy your healthy, leisurely mealtime as a family. It’ll benefit everyone’s health!

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