Baby Led Weaning – how to do it safely

Jessica Penner, RDBabies & Kids, Baby Health, Nutrition4 Comments

Baby Led Weaning: How to do it Safely

When I wrote about some dangers of Baby Led Weaning, I got some flack in the comments. A lot of people clearly love this infant feeding technique, to the point of ignoring the evidence I provided.

The one valid criticism I received was that I hadn’t provided an alternative to the dangers… a guide to using Baby Led Weaning safely.

Here is that guide.

Baby Led Weaning is about releasing control – and that’s a good thing

Baby Led Weaning focusses on giving babies control over their food. It’s about letting them play with food, figure out that it’s food, get it into their mouths on their own, and figure out how to swallow it. It lets babies self-feed.

To quote www.babyledweaning.com, “it’s ‘baby-led’ in the sense that you let them do what they need to do while they’re learning, and as the parent you resist the urge to get wound up in knots about how much they’re eating, whether they like the food you thought they’d like and whether it’s smushed into the nearest curtain. The main thing is… it’s all good clean (messy) fun.”

This is great! Baby Led Weaning allows parents to do something very important: give children control over how much food to eat.

Babies and children are born to be in tune with their hunger and fullness cues. It’s important for parents to respect this innate knowledge, because these signals can be lost if they’re interfered with. This contributes to overeating in adulthood. Allowing children to keep control over how much they eat lets them regulate the amount of food that is right for them, not just today, but throughout their lifetime.

With Baby Led Weaning, you literally hand over the job of feeding to the child, so it’s nearly impossible to interfere. This is one reason I love this feeding phenomonon…  it preserves your child’s hunger and fullness cues!

Before you begin, just make sure you know how to do it safely. Start by making sure your child is ready.

Your child needs to be developmentally ready for Baby Led Weaning

A couple questions to ask about your baby’s development before you start letting her feed herself:

  • Is she able to push her upper body off the ground during tummy time?
  • Is he able to sit upright with only minimal support? A bumbo chair doesn’t count!

baby-sitting-unassisted

If your child can lift herself up on her tummy or sit unassisted like the baby pictured above, then she has developed the proper musculature for sitting and swallowing food safely. If not, she is NOT ready.

Most babies are ready by the time they are 6 months of age. Only a small number of babies are ready earlier than this. If your baby is 6 months and isn’t able to sit up unaided, talk to your paediatrician. At 6 months your baby will need more than breastmilk or formula, to fulfill her growing need for iron.

Avoid offering foods that pose choking hazards

Any foods that are hard or round are major choking hazards. Additionally, the following foods should be avoided before a child’s 4th birthday:

  • whole nuts, peanuts, and seeds
  • hard candies
  • gum
  • popcorn
  • marshmallows
  • fish with bones
  • whole grapes or cherry tomatoes
  • whole hot dogs
  • food on skewers or toothpicks

“Please make sure your seats are in the fully upright position”

Only feed your child while they are sitting upright. Many high chairs have recline positions. These should never be used. When a child is reclined, it makes it more challenging to swallow safely. Additionally, it’s easier for food to fall back into the wind pipe. Make sure the child is sitting upright. I love the IKEA Antilop high chair. It’s always upright, it’s easy to clean, and it’s around $20!

Baby Led Weaning should only happen while stationary

A child should also be stationary when eating. This means NO feeding in the car, NO feeding in the stroller, and NO feeding in an exerciser or jolly jumper. That last one might seem like a no-brainer, but I know two very well-educated parents who give their infant a stem of broccoli to gnaw on while in an exersaucer. As always, I need to cover all the bases 🙂

Be willing to alter your diet to do Baby Led Weaning

One of the biggest benefits parents get out of Baby Led Weaning is that they don’t need to prepare separate baby food for mealtime. Baby just eats what you’re eating!

Unfortunately this can be problematic, depending on your diet. Not all foods that are appropriate for adults are appropriate for babies. Also, many adults don’t have the healthiest diets, so when you just feed your baby what you’re eating, you unwittingly pass that along to them.

Think of this as a good thing! You’re motivated to make sure your baby gets the nutrition he needs, right? Now that motivation can help you improve your diet as well.

You can make these changes without drastically overhauling your diet. For example, you don’t have to offer baby every food that you’ve prepared. Pick out the specific foods that meet the following requirements, and offer those to baby.

Offer your baby foods that are high in iron

A lot of people will start their babies on fruits and vegetables when deciding to use baby led weaning. While these are nutritious foods, they are not the foods that a baby needs MOST when just starting to eat solids.

From a nutritional point of view, the main reason to start baby on solids is to give them foods high in iron. At six months babies are not able to get all the iron they need from breastmilk or formula. When they are born they have a lot iron stored up from their mother’s womb, which they use up while their diet is exclusively breastmilk or formula. The supply lasts for about six months. After that, it’s time to get them some additional high-iron food. A baby between 6-12 months needs more iron than an adult male! 

Babies need a lot of iron for their growth! In baby’s first year of life, she will triple her birth weight. Iron is an essential component of red blood cells and is needed to bring oxygen to all the cells of the body. The iron in breastmilk would be enough to replace daily losses… and would be sufficient if a baby wasn’t growing at all. But a baby is growing at such a rapid rate!

Jennifer House, Registered Dietitian from First Step Nutrition and teacher of Solid Steps to Baby Led Weaning, recommends offering baby these high iron foods:

  • scrambled eggs
  • beans
  • shreds of a roast that has been cooked in the slow cooker until tender
  • well cooked ground meat

Offer only low-sodium foods to baby

A baby’s kidneys are in what is known as a “sodium conserving state.”  The baby has adapted to the low sodium of breastmilk or formula and is very efficient at recycling the sodium back into the blood. This is one reason that it’s very important to only offer low sodium foods to babies. Their bodies are not able to regulate excess sodium in the same way that adults can.

To keep a baby’s diet low in sodium, follow these basic guidelines:

  • don’t add salt to the food you offer baby. If it’s a meal the whole family will be eating, the older members of the family can add salt to taste at the table.
  • don’t offer processed foods to baby. The majority of processed foods contain too much sodium for adults, let alone babies!
  • food made for toddlers is not regulated to be low in sodium, so watch out for those products!
  • by law, food made for babies must be low in sodium. These are usually purees so they don’t generally fit the Baby Led Weaning approach, but I thought I should mention it!

Food should be soft in texture, and easy to grasp

At 6 months of age, babies will use their whole hands to pick up objects. They’re not yet able to pick things up with their thumb and pointer finger (the pincer grasp). To help them out, give babies foods they can easily grasp and bring to their mouth. A good rule of “thumb” is to give them foods in the shape of adult fingers.

The food offered to babies at this age should be soft enough that it doesn’t increase the risk of choking. These researchers offer this test: if you can squish the food between the roof of your mouth and your tongue, it’s the right texture for baby! If not, cook it until it’s soft enough.

Unfortunately, as you can see, this means that may need to do some dedicated meal prep for your baby some of the time. But is cooking a few veggies a little longer to make sure they’re soft enough for your baby that much work?

Just follow this short Baby Led Weaning checklist

Now that we’ve gone in detail through the things you need to know, just follow this checklist. For help remembering them, copy these onto a paper on the fridge.

  1. Make sure baby is ready: can she sit upright unassisted and lift herself off her tummy?
  2. Don’t offer hard or round foods, or other choking hazards
  3. Only feed while baby is sitting upright and stationary
  4. At every meal make sure baby is offered a food that is high in iron
  5. Only offer low sodium food to baby
  6. Offer foods that are soft in texture, and easy to grasp

With those six things in place, go ahead and enjoy the benefits of Baby Led Weaning.

Do you have worries about starting your baby on solids?

Additionally, I know that starting your baby on solids can feel overwhelming and you may have other worries such as…

  • I’m afraid my baby will choke!
  • I’m afraid my baby won’t be getting enough of the right nutrients!
  • I’m afraid my baby will have an allergic reaction!
  • I’m afraid my baby is not eating enough… too much!
  • I’m afraid my baby will be a picky eater!

My friend and fellow pediatric dietitian, Nita and I have create a FREE guide for you to address these fears and most of all, help you work through them! Just enter your email below and you’ll get the guide sent to your inbox.

For more reading on Baby Led Weaning:

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4 Comments on “Baby Led Weaning – how to do it safely”

  1. Hi Jessica! Thank you so much for the info. I’m a ftm and have been struggling with what is the “right way” to feed my DD. She’s 8 months old and hubby and I disagree on her nutritional needs. We tend to do a mix of spoon feeding (homemade fruit and/or veggie purées) or whatever I happen to be making for dinner). Do you have any suggestions for a short checklist of things that should be included in each meal for baby? For example, should baby have meat (or an alternative that’s high in iron like greens, sweet potato, lentils, etc.,), at every single meal? Should you feed baby three times a day,like you yourself would eat? Is it okay to just breastfeed and skip solids completely at a meal here and there?

    1. Hi Kristie,
      Yes, I would offer a high iron food to baby at every feed.
      The great thing about starting solids is that you can start to establish a meal and snack schedule for baby. When baby is still on a liquid diet (breastmilk or formula) then it’s all about feeding on demand! Continue to breastfeed on demand but start to add in meals on your family’s typical schedule. There’s no right or wrong number of times per day. In general, you want to start with one feeding per day and slowly work your way up to 5-6 meals/snacks by one year of age. And yes, if baby’s hunger is completely satisfied with breastmilk then it’s okay to skip a feeding here and there.

  2. Thanks for this article! My second baby refused to be spoonfed, she had to do it herself!!! Totally opposite of her older brother (She’s 3.5 now and just as determined). I liked the freedom of me not having to sit and spoonfeed her. Now Baby #3 is 7 months old and we’re doing a bit of a combo and I’m still trying to figure out what’s best for all of us this time around.

    1. Yeah… going with the flow of the baby is a great way to approach it! I personally believe either spoon fooding, baby led weaning, or a combo can all work. The main thing is to follow the lead of the baby and allow him to determine how much food to eat!

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