So you know you want to have a go at baby led weaning, but do you know how to start?
Which foods should you try your baby with? Which ones are safe? Which ones are nutritious superfoods? Which ones should you avoid? What sort of shape should you make them, and how do you stop them becoming so slippery so your little one has a chance of picking them up?
In this blog I’m going to answer all your questions and go through some key considerations you should know about BLW too.
What is baby led weaning?
Baby led weaning is offering your baby finger sized food and letting them feed themselves (1).
This self-feeding method, is an increasingly popular weaning method to introduce babies to solid foods and an alternative to spoon feeding pureed or mashed foods (1).
Baby led weaning teaches babies how to chew (or gum) foods and swallow more solid consistencies. It also gives your little one more control over the foods they can choose.
What are some of the advantages of baby led weaning?
Baby led weaning (BLW) could help promote good eating behaviours, from a young age. This can help with setting the foundations for healthy relationships with food long term (11).
Babies weaned with the BLW method may be more in touch with their hunger signals and recognise fullness easier, than those weaned via the spoon fed method (12).
Research has also shown that toddlers weaned with BLW, may be less likely to eat food for reasons other than hunger (12).
BLW has also been linked to lower levels of childhood obesity and weight gain later in life by some research (13). One research study found spoon-fed babies were just over 2lbs heavier at 18-24 months, than those weaned with BLW (13).
However the link between weaning method and weight gain isn’t certain, as other research has not found any links (11).
Baby led weaning may also help reduce food fussiness (11), as often a wider variety of foods, textures and tastes are introduced earlier on.
Parents also claim BLW is easier as you don’t need to make up purees or buy special baby food (11). Baby led weaning foods (or BLW foods) are often foods you already have and cook for the rest of the family.
When can I start baby led weaning?
The latest recommendations are that weaning (including baby led weaning), is not started until your baby is developmentally ready which is usually around 6 months. This ensures your baby has enough skill so that they can safely cope with solid foods (5). They should be able to feed themselves and move food around their mouths in order to safely swallow it (5).
If you want to check if your baby is developmentally ready you can download my FREE guide here that goes through three checks you can do at home to see if your baby is there yet.
If they are developmentally ready, babies can be introduced to baby led weaning from the start of weaning (2). By six months most babies can sit up by themselves and grasp objects bringing them to their mouths (13).
Consult your health visitor or a Dietitian for advice, if you are unsure if your baby is ready to be weaned or which method is most suitable for your little one.
Can I combine spoon feeding with baby led weaning?
There’s no reason why you can’t combine the two methods of feeding your little one, in fact it’s a great idea. Many parents successfully swop between the different styles of feeding. Giving your little one pureed food such as yoghurt, alongside the finger foods, gets them used to both types of textures.
If your little one hasn’t experienced pureed or smooth textures early on, they may be reluctant to try this type of texture later. It also starts to get them used to spoons for later on.
Introducing as many different textures and variety as possible is a great way to prepare your baby for a healthy, varied diet.
Should my baby still be having breast or formula milk too?
At first, babies will be exploring food and textures and only eating small amounts of food (1). This stage is all about learning through playing with food, rather than eating lots.
At 6 months, they will still be getting most of their energy and nutrients from milk and for the first 12 months, milk will continue to be important. Breastmilk or formula should be your little one’s main drink for the first year (1).
Milk feeds are especially important for baby led weaners who are likely to be eating less than puree fed babies for much of their weaning journey.
Alongside weaning, the recommended amount of breast or formula milk is around 500ml per day, at 7 months when 3 meals a day are established. This amount should continue until around 10 months, when your baby is likely to be eating 3 meals per day with pudding and the milk feeds will reduce to around 350-400ml daily.
Your baby should also have sips of water from an open or free-flow cup during meal times, from 6 months onwards (1).
This will help your baby practice with a cup but don’t expect them to drink much at first. Your little one will be getting lots of fluid from their milk feeds. Open cups are recommended as these help your baby learn appropriate drinking skills and are better for your little one’s teeth (1).
Will my baby be getting enough to eat?
Feeding yourself can take a bit of getting used to and hand to mouth can be a little ‘hit and miss’ at first. However at first, solid foods are not expected to provide the majority of the nutrition your baby needs (5). So they do have a bit of time to practice! Your little one will still be having plenty of formula or breast milk feeds.
The early stage of weaning is an opportunity for exploration and introduction of food. Baby led weaning foods from 6 months are designed to be fun to explore and easy to manage. Baby led weaning foods 8 months onwards, will include more variety and more challenging textures as your little one becomes more confident with eating.
What are the disadvantages of baby led weaning?
Baby led weaners tend to consume more salt and sugar than traditional weaners (puree fed babies), as they are more likely to be eating similar foods to their family like bread, cheese and foods aimed at adults, rather than homemade or shop bought baby foods.
It’s important to be aware of this and take steps when cooking to minimise the amount of salt and sugar you add to food and check food labels for foods you buy in tins, packets and jars.
We don’t know the long term effect of early exposure to salt and sugar.
The mess! There’s no doubt baby led weaning can be messy, which really shouldn’t be a problem. You also have to respect your little one’s eating speed, as playing and exploring your food is quite fun and in terms of development it’s actually how little ones learn.
Is baby led weaning safe?
With baby led weaning choking can be a concern or fear for parents.
By six months most babies, without any health or development concerns, should have the hand to mouth coordination and mouth skills to safely manage ‘baby suitable’ finger foods (4). Start with the recommended baby led weaning starter foods listed below.
Much of the research into baby led weaning has not shown an increased risk of choking with BLW, compared to being weaned with purees (13).
However baby led weaning may not be suitable for all babies. For example if your baby was born prematurely they may not have the three signs of developmental readiness and so BLW would not be safe for them.
Making sure your baby is developmentally ready is important. They need to be able to sit upright in a high chair, have good head control and being able to pick up objects (10) (13).
For safe baby led weaning, make sure you follow my advice below on the best first foods for baby led weaning.
Top tips for safe baby led weaning;
Make sure you are supervising your baby at all times, never leave your little one alone with food.
Start with foods that are soft, easy to smash, appropriately finger sized and are in the recommended first food list below for baby led weaning (9).
Allow your baby to control how much they eat and to self feed (11)
Avoid foods that are round or coin shaped, too sticky or can easily be broken off into small or crumbly pieces (11).
Stay away from potential choking hazards such as grapes, hot dogs, raisins, popcorn, raw vegetables, and sticky, crunchy nut butters (a thin layer of smooth nut butter is ok, but to be sure you can thin it further with a little milk) (10).
What about food allergies?
The latest research recommends not holding back from potential allergens and introducing these to babies as early as possible from the start of weaning (11).
Some foods that can cause allergic reactions in babies and children, include; dairy, eggs, nuts, fish, seafood, soy, wheat and sesame.
The best way to introduce these are small quantities, one at a time and monitor your little one carefully.
Symptoms of an allergic reaction include; difficulty breathing and swallowing, itchiness or rashes (11). These can occur minutes or hours after eating certain foods.
If you suspect your little one may have an allergy or may be at higher risk, get advice from an allergy specialist doctor before introducing these foods. You can ask for a referral via your GP.
If you think your baby has had an allergic reaction seek medical treatment immediately.
How do I start baby led weaning?
Start with a small amount of solid food once per day, choose a time that suits you and your baby best. At first your little one will just be exploring the food and it’s not about how much they’ve eaten. A baby led weaning cookbook may be useful for ideas but is not essential, check out my first food list below for plenty of ideas. Here are some top tips to get you started:
Make sure your baby is sitting upright and comfy, a well supported highchair is ideal (8).
Make sure they are not too distracted, so remove toys and turn off the TV.
Be prepared for the mess! A splash mat under the highchair may be a good purchase. I found that a fleece picnic blanket worked well as I could shake off the food and pop it in the wash at the end of the day and dried quickly overnight.
Put food straight onto the highchair tray for your baby to explore (8).
Start with suitable finger foods for baby, these are pieces of food that are easy for your baby to hold. Think ‘thick chip size’ pieces around 5-6cm in length. Your baby needs to be able to close their hand around the food so avoid making it too thick.
Using a crinkle cutter can help your little one get an even better grip on the food (8).
Smaller sized pieces of food come later, once your baby has perfected their pincer grip (or pincer grasp).
Let your little one have control and choice over what they eat, deciding if and in what order to eat the foods you give them.
Sit with your baby and eat your meal with them too. They need to learn what to do with the food and the best way for them to learn is to see you.
Baby led weaning should be a positive experience for both you and your baby which will strengthen the bond between you (add in ref here about attachment).
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to offer foods singly for the first few weeks. In fact, if you do your baby could run into nutritional problems. It’s really important to think about balancing meals right from the start, as soon as those first tastes have been accepted.
‘Veggies first’ is the recommendation from the Nutrition Society. Because babies are born with mature sweet taste buds and will always have a preference for sweet foods, it is recommended that their first foray with food should be with bitter tastes. Hence veggies first.
Vegetables however, despite being packed with lots of lovely vitamins, don’t contain a lot of the actual nutrients that are needed by babies from around 6 months.
My advice is to do veggies first but for no longer than a week or two, to help you move from 1 meal a day to 3 meals a day but after that, it’s really important to consider how to plan a balanced meal for your little one.
Building your babies meals is a three-part process.
First, you need to start with a protein food and if you can make this an iron rich one too that’s even better.
Next, add in your veg or fruit. This is your vitamin C source which can be really helpful in terms of helping absorb the iron.
Finally, you need something that’s going to give them energy, usually, this is a starchy carbohydrate food (and some of these are iron-rich too) but can also be healthy fats.
My baby led weaning first food list
(BLW first foods)
For baby led weaning first foods not having teeth isn’t a problem as you will want to start with soft easy-to-eat foods anyway.
Vegetables & Fruit
Steaming vegetables is the best way to avoid losing too many vitamins in the cooking process. Vegetables should be cooked to make them soft, avoid raw vegetables at this stage.
Make sure you offer ‘thick chip’ size pieces.
Some great BLW vegetables include;
Broccoli florets (with the stem to hold onto)
Thick pieces of roasted butternut squash
Sweet potato (can be roasted)
Choose fruits that are soft and ripe. Pieces should be around 5cm or more in length to make them easy to grasp.
To reduce them being so slippery, you can wash and leave the skins on fruit. For example the bottom half of a banana, melon and avocado (10). Washing the skin is important however, as they will end up in your little one’s mouth!
You can also roll finger sized pieces of fruit in desiccated coconut, almond flour or oat flour to make them easier to grip.
It probably goes without saying but before serving remove pips, seeds or stones and the core of kiwi fruit which can be woody(1).
Take away the skins from your baby after the fruit is eaten, the skins require a bit of chewing and could pose a choking hazard.
Peaches & nectarines
Very ripe pears
Kiwi – remove the inner core
Strawberries & raspberries halved
Harder fruits should be cooked so they are soft. Such as;
Less ripe pears
Meat and fish
Soft finger-sized strips of roast chicken (the brown chicken meat is more nutritious), some BLW advocates suggest chicken on the bone but this is a choking risk but I recommend this is avoided.
Fish cut into chunks around 1 inch square, such as white fish, salmon or tuna chunks tinned in spring water.
Homemade meatballs or similar – you can create any shape – longer ‘sausage shaped’ meatballs may be easier for your little one to hold. These can be made with lots of different minced meats including; lamb, beef, pork or even turkey.
Mini burgers made with the similar types of minced meat listed above.
Steak – cuts like sirloin can be sliced into the finger pieces, ensure this is well cooked and not too rare. If the steak is pink in the middle, choose pieces closer to the outside that will be well done.
Slow cooked casseroled finger-sized pieces of meat such as beef or lamb – slow cooking makes the meat easier to eat as it falls apart easily in the mouth.
Avoid highly processed meats such as sausages, hot dogs, shop-bought meatballs, burgers, goujons and nuggets, ham or bacon as all of these are processed meats and are too high in salt for young babies.
Cubes of cheese
Whole natural yoghurt including Greek yoghurt
Yoghurt is a great food to offer your baby and can be truly BLW if you give them their own spoon. It’s OK to load the spoon for them.
For baby led weaning eggs are great food, they are really nutritious too. You could try;
Boiled egg (cut in half lengthways)
Strips of omelette
Eggy bread (finger sized pieces of bread, covered in beaten egg, then cooked)
Scrambled egg with milk (or cream) and unsalted butter
Frittata cut into wedges
Egg muffins are fun BLW foods. Plenty of baby led weaning muffin recipes can be found online and heres one of mine using leftovers from your roast dinner, however don’t use them as a way to introduce (or hide) new foods. it’s important to give new foods by themselves and allow a baby to get used to their individual flavours and textures first before mixing them into muffins where their sensory properties become hidden.
Starchy carbohydrates & grains
Toast or bread fingers with a thin spread of hummus or smooth nut butters (remember nuts are an allergen so these need to be introduced safely before your baby’s 1st birthday (10) Wholemeal bread is an easier texture to manage in the mouth than white.
Crumpets cut into fingers with a little unsalted butter
Larger pieces of pasta (penne or similar)
Homemade savoury pancakes
Sweet potato baked and cut into wedges
Unsweetened breakfast cereal and porridge with a spoon
Fats and oils
Don’t be afraid to cook with fats and oils, babies are growing tremendously fast and so need these energy-dense foods as a normal part of their diet. It’s OK to toss their steamed broccoli in unsalted butter or Olive margarine before serving or stir fry foods with olive oil. Healthy fats are those from vegetable or seed sources such as:
Oily fish such as salmon, gives your baby healthy fats too.
Baby led weaning foods to avoid
Honey until 12 months of age. Honey can contain a type of bacteria that can cause food poisoning to little ones who are not used to this.
Sugary, salty, or very processed foods. Babies are unable to process too much salt and this can lead to kidney damage (11). Consider the salt content of foods such as ready made sauces. Don’t use gravy or stock cubes as these are both high salt. Choose low salt foods for your little one (11). Sugary foods can also cause damage to teeth or tooth decay.
Cow’s milk as a main drink until 12 months of age as it is not as rich in essential nutrients such as iron, as formula or breast milk. However cow’s milk can safely be used for cooking (11)
Low fat products – babies need the fat content of foods (11).
So there you have it! Are you planning on baby led weaning? Pop a comment below with your questions or if you have already started let me know how it’s going.
If you would like a copy of my references please contact me .
Sarah Almond Bushell MPhil, BSc (Hons) RD MBDA – Registered Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist