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What is baby-led weaning and should I do that instead of spoon-feeding?

It may be messier than feeding baby the old-fashioned way, but experts say there are real benefits.
Baby girl (12-15 months) eating peas and pasta in high chair
Baby-led weaning foods should be soft enough for babies to squish in their hands. Katrina Wittkamp / Getty Images

The first thing parents should know about baby-led weaning is that the name can be confusing.

"The name is so misleading," said Dr. Jean Moorjani, a pediatrician at Orlando Health's Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando, Florida.

Weaning, she explained, typically refers to getting a baby off of breast milk or formula. Yet when people say the phrase baby-led weaning, they're referring to giving a baby solid foods to eat on his or her own instead of spoon-feeding them purees.

"If I were to rename this, I would call it baby-led feeding," Moorjani said. "And I think it's fantastic."

"If you think of the traditional way to feed babies — how I fed my kids — I sat them in a high chair and they had a bowl of pureed food and I would scoop it up with the spoon and do the cute little airplane or choo-choo train and feed them," she continued. "Baby-led is kind of the opposite of that. It's really letting baby take charge of what they're eating."

That's right: This method is as simple as putting age-appropriate foods in front of a baby and letting him or her have at it.

While there's not much research on baby-led weaning (or, ahem, feeding), letting a baby learn to eat on their own may have many benefits, experts and advocates say.

"When someone is feeding you, you're just eating the food and you stop when they stop, but when baby is leading it, they know when they're full," Moorjani said. "They recognize, OK, I'm not hungry anymore, and they stop eating. So they learn satiety better."

Using their fingers and hands to pick up food and put it in their mouths may also improve their motor skills, and eating solid foods instead of purees introduces them to more tastes and textures, she said.

"It can be an overall sort of sensory experience," said Dr. Lauren Crosby, a pediatrician in Los Angeles.

Crosby added that some studies have shown that introducing babies to a wide array of foods early on may also reduce their chances of having food allergies later in life.

But first, it's not for everyone

While baby-led weaning may be a popular choice these days, doctors want parents to know that it's definitely not a requirement.

“If you have a baby who is just digging in and shoveling food in, fine, but if you have one that kind of looks at the broccoli and throws it on the floor, you’re going to say, 'Hmmm, no, I'm not comfortable with this,'" Crosby said. "So it also depends on the parents' level of anxiety, and how into it the baby is."

It's also perfectly fine to give it a try, and if it doesn't work, to go back to spoon-feeding. After all, babies have been eating purees with success for a very, very long time. Or, some parents may find a combination of both spoon-feeding and baby-led weaning works best.

“If you don’t want to do it, don’t do it," Crosby said. "Your kid is going to eat those foods eventually, so I don’t want people to think that is the only way to feed the baby.”

How to start baby-led weaning

While it's important to remember that breast milk or formula will continue to be a baby's primary source of nutrition until they are a year old, the American Academy of Pediatrics says that parents can begin to introduce solid foods when a baby is around six months old, although every baby is different.

Signs that a baby is ready for solid foods include having good head and neck control, being able to sit up on their own and showing interest in the foods that adults are eating around them. Babies with developmental delays or underlying neurological disorders may have to follow a more traditional feeding method, both doctors said.

Once your baby is ready, the AAP recommends introducing one new food every three to five days, and watching out for allergic reactions in the meantime. The food is up to parents, but it should be a single-ingredient food (so, for example, a strawberry — not a strawberry shortcake).

Start with a small amount of food at first, and understand that your baby may not be interested right away — and that's OK. Eventually, they'll get more comfortable with eating, or at least playing with, solid food.

Baby-led weaning foods

There are many, many options for what a baby can eat, but there are some important rules to follow.

"The most important thing is that foods are cut into small pieces and that if you're holding it in your hand, you can squish it," Moorjani said.

Soft foods like banana and avocado are popular first foods for babies. But any fruit or vegetable that you can steam until it's soft works, too: broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, apples or pears, for example. Babies can also eat soft cheeses and bread, pureed meats, eggs, oatmeal, tofu, rice and more.

"You can even do soft, flaky fish," Moorjani said. "A lot of people don't think about giving fish as an option, but most fish, when you cook it, is actually softer than chicken or beef."

There are also some foods that parents should not feed their babies: whole grapes or cherries, hot dogs, raw vegetables, large globs of peanut butter, popcorn and nuts.

Experts say that it's important to expose children to a wide array of food textures and flavors, and that many babies and toddlers need to be exposed to foods multiple times before they'll accept them.

Things to watch out for

Some parents may be worried about choking when their baby starts eating solid foods. But experts say that there's no evidence that babies who feed themselves have more choking incidents than those who are fed purees.

That said, there are some things to look out for.

First of all, every parent should take a CPR class before starting baby-led weaning (or even if they aren't), Crosby said. Parents should also watch their babies the entire time they are eating.

"You can't go off and do the dishes when they have giant chunks of food," Crosby said. "Don't let them eat when they're crawling or running around or in the car in the backseat."

There's also one big downside to baby-led weaning: the mess. It's no surprise that putting a tray of food in front of a 6-month-old usually ends up with most of the food on their face, in their hair or on the floor. While some parents may find the benefits of baby-led weaning outweigh the negatives, Crosby said that it's not for everyone.

"It's not something where there's enough data out there to say, 'Yes, do it, it's better,'" she said. "It's sort of mixed. I think you have to do what you're comfortable with."