How to Start Baby-Led Weaning

Food for baby-led weaning

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For the first 6 months of your baby's life, you’ll breastfeed or feed them breast milk or infant formula in a bottle. After that, experts recommend the continuation of breast milk or infant formula for a year or longer, but with the addition of solid food.

Traditionally, when babies were ready to start solids, parents would begin with purees and a spoon. But, now, more and more families are taking a different approach called baby-led weaning. Learn more about baby-led weaning, if it might be right for your family, and how to start.

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What Is Baby-Led Weaning?

When a baby is ready to wean from breast milk or infant formula to solid foods, it doesn't mean the baby is ready to stop taking the bottle or the breast. Rather, weaning is moving or progressing from one type of feeding to another. It's a gradual process. In fact, the change from breast milk or formula to full solids can take months or even years.

Baby-led weaning is one way to add solid foods to your child's diet, says Steph Lee, MD, MPH, FAAP, a pediatrician and preventive medicine specialist and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Instead of starting rice cereal and purees between 4 and 6 months of age, with baby-led weaning, you start when your child is six months old and skip right to foods your baby can feed themself.

Starting solid foods with baby led weaning

 Verywell / Jessica Olah

What You Need to Start Baby-Led Weaning

Baby-led weaning doesn't require any special purchases. All you need to initiate baby-led weaning are the expected items used for the regular feeding of your baby. These may include bottles and formula or expressed breastmilk if you use bottles. You'll need a high chair, bibs, baby-sized silverware and dishes, and baby-safe foods, such as mashed or soft fruits, grains, meats, and vegetables, to feed them.

Benefits of Baby-Led Weaning

Baby-led weaning is becoming popular for many reasons. Here are some benefits of skipping purees and going straight to letting your baby feed themself finger foods. 

Helps Your Child's Development

Self-feeding helps to develop the child's motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and agility. Plus, they are learning to eat foods that they will continue to eat throughout childhood and beyond. says Dr. Lee.

Teaches Self-Regulation

Parents sometimes force a child to eat more than they need. Self-feeding lets the baby eat as much or as little as they want. This may help them to learn when they're hungry and full. It may also help to prevent overeating and obesity later on in life.

Is Easier for Parents

Since you can give your child baby-friendly varieties of the food that your family eats, there is no need to make your own baby food by mashing up foods or using the food processor. You also don't have to deal with jars of store-bought purees in flavor combinations that may not look or smell appetizing.

Encourages Eating a Variety of Foods

Baby-led weaning can decrease the chance your child will be a picky eater because they get to take more ownership of feeding themselves. Having them take the lead on feeding may make the process more fun for them and encourage healthy eating habits in the future.

Fosters Family Meals

When you follow baby-led weaning, the baby can sit at the table and eat similar foods with the other children and adults. They can eat the same meal as the rest of the family as long as the food is baby-friendly and not too hot, too spicy, or a choking hazard. 

Saves Money

Baby food is expensive. So, when your baby can eat many of the foods that you and your family eat, it can save you a bundle on all those little jars of baby food. 

Cuts Down on Meal Prep

If you were planning on making your own purees, this approach saves time in the kitchen preparing and freezing batches of food for your child. Plus, even though you still have to be there to watch, letting your child feed themself frees you up to eat your own meal, help another child, start cleaning up, or just sit down and take a quick break.

Encourages Better Family Eating Habits

When you're stocking up on healthy finger foods for your baby, the rest of the family will have those healthy finger foods to grab as snacks instead of reaching for junk food, chips, or other alternatives. 

"There's no strict recommendation on whether baby-led weaning is a better or worse approach to introducing solid foods, so try it if you like, but your baby will also do just fine if you decide to go with the traditional strategy with spoon-feeding purees first," says Dr. Lee.

Getting Started

Baby-led weaning can begin when your child is about 6 months old. You'll want to wait until your child is ready to start self-feeding. By 6 months, most babies can sit up on their own, pick up pieces of food, and try to eat. However, some babies need a little more time and aren’t quite ready to feed themselves until 7 or 8 months. Your child may also need more time if they were born prematurely.

"The best way to follow baby-led weaning is to remember to consider what food consistency the baby is developmentally ready for. Soft mashable foods are your best bet, such as avocados, bananas, or mashed potatoes," explains Dr. Lee.

In the beginning, the baby may not eat very much. That's normal and expected. "Be very patient with yourself and your baby Every baby, no matter the approach, will take some time to learn to like and eat foods," explains Dr. Lee.

Remember, breast milk or formula is still your child’s main source of nutrition through the first year. However, over time your baby will get the hang of self-feeding and will be eating more and more regular food.

You can start with finger foods such as: 

  • Baby snack puffs
  • Cheerios
  • Cut-up, shredded, or mashed chicken, meat, and fish
  • Cut-up cooked pasta
  • Diced cooked vegetables
  • Diced up soft cheese
  • Infant cookies and crackers
  • Pieces of cooked eggs
  • Small pieces of bread
  • Small pieces of soft fruits
  • Teething biscuits

Gagging and Choking 

New parents are often nervous about starting finger foods because they worry that it will cause their child to gag and choke. Gagging is a natural reflex, and your baby will likely gag as they adjust to eating solids. In fact, gagging is a protective action that helps your baby not choke. Babies gag when they take a bottle, when they suck their fingers, and when they start solid foods.

When an infant begins to take solids, they have to get used to chewing and eating. Gagging helps prevent food from getting stuck in the back of their throat. The baby will gag if they start finger foods at 6 months or if they start them later. It’s a little scary for parents, but it’s a normal part of learning how to manage food in the mouth.

So, you will notice gagging at first, but you'll see it less often as your child gets used to eating. However, if your baby is gagging excessively and doesn't seem to be adjusting to eating, you should discuss your concerns with a pediatrician.

Choking is different from gagging. A baby chokes when something gets stuck in the back of the throat and blocks the baby’s breathing. You can tell your baby is choking if they cannot breathe, cough, or cry.

Dangerous Foods for Infants and Toddlers

Some snacks and foods that adults have no problem chewing and eating can be dangerous for babies and young children. When foods are hard or big, solid, and/or chunky, they can get stuck in a baby's throat, cut off the air supply, and make it difficult to breathe.

"Avoid any choking hazards, such as nuts, grapes (unless they're cut in half and smushed), and other round firm foods," says Dr. Lee. Here's are some of the most common edible choking hazards for little ones:

  • Dried Fruit
  • Gum
  • Hard candy
  • Hot dogs
  • Lollipops
  • Popcorn
  • Nuts 
  • Raisins
  • Raw vegetables
  • Whole grapes

Tips for Success

Your baby may try to grab food off your plate before you’re ready to start them on solids. Or, they may have no interest in picking up anything you put on the tray of their high chair even after they turn 6 months old. Every child is different. With baby-led weaning, you let your child take the lead. Here are some tips to help you and your child get off to a good start with baby-led weaning. 

Don’t Start Too Early

It's important to wait until your child shows signs of readiness to feed themself. Notice if they seem to be interested in food, such as watching you when you eat or prepare food, They also need to be able to sit up on their own in the high chair and bring the food to their mouth. If they aren't showing these signs, wait a few weeks before trying again.

Start With Something Easy

Be sure to start with baby-safe foods. Soft, shredded, mashed, and other easy-to-eat foods that are just right for beginners include puffed cereal, soft shredded meat, ripe fruit, cooked pasta, and cooked veggies in bite-size pieces.

Cut Everything Up

Make sure everything is small enough to pick up with tiny fingers and not too big to chew. However, make sure the pieces aren’t too small since their dexterity isn't well developed and they could have trouble picking up super tiny bits of food.

Choose Nutritious Foods

Choose whole foods over processed foods and healthier foods over snacks. Cheerios are fine, but if you start only with cookies and crackers your child may be less inclined to accept healthier foods when you offer them later.

Add New Foods Slowly

When introducing new foods for the first time, add new ones every 3 to 5 days, Observe your baby for any signs of an allergic reaction. If one occurs, it’s easier to tell which food caused it if you add them one at a time. If there is a food allergy that runs in your family, be cautious with that specific food. You may also want to watch your child carefully after introducing peanut butter, shellfish, and other foods that commonly cause allergies.

Always Supervise Your Child

In the beginning, your child may need a little help with getting the food into their mouth. They may even gag or choke a little. Even as your baby gets more and more comfortable, they still need supervision and your company. Stay with your child to help if needed.

Don’t Rush Meals

Let your child take their time while eating. Especially in the beginning, when they're learning how to eat solid foods. It can take a while to get through the meal. 

Let Your Child Get Messy

Your child may miss their mouth or play with the food. It may end up all over the chair, in their hair, and on the floor. But, they're learning, and learning is not always neat. "It can get messy sometimes. Don't be afraid to let them explore with their hands and mouths, because it's all part of their learning independence," recommends Dr. Lee.

Continue Breastmilk or Formula

After a year, your child can continue with breast milk or infant formula or switch to cow’s milk. Talk to your baby’s doctor for a recommendation.

A Word From Verywell

Baby-led weaning doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing method of weaning. It’s fine to spoon-feed your child purees for some feedings and let them feed themselves finger foods for others. Some babies want to be spoon-fed. Others prefer to feed themselves. As long as your baby is getting the nutrition that they need and growing in a healthy way, you can choose the method or combination of methods that works best for you and your child.

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6 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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