There is nothing quite like looking at your little one when his mouth is wide open, beaming with excitement for a spoon filled with pureed bananas. This transition is an adventurous time for him as he begins to explore the culinary world around him. It can even be a milestone for you as you sharpen your skills of “choo-choo” and airplane noises to help get him to open up for a bite. However, for some families, this stage of feeding development is skipped almost entirely.
While introduced in the United Kingdom roughly 10 years ago, the practice of baby-led weaning has gained traction recently for families around the world, with some supporters here in the US. Baby-led weaning is the practice of introducing solid foods to babies, largely eliminating the step of spoon feeding purees and other processed or homemade baby foods. While babies are still fed breast milk or formula until the age of one, with baby-led weaning, babies go straight to solid foods. Imagine, instead of one-on-one spoon feeding sessions, your baby joins the family at regular meal times to feast upon cooked pasta, pieces of ripe fruits, rice, flakey fish, or cooked egg yolks.
Supporters of the practice embrace the inclusiveness that baby-led weaning provides a family during mealtime. Feeding the baby is no longer an isolated event, instead, everyone dines together at the table. Pediatric Speech Language Pathologist & Feeding Specialist, Megan Dewberry, M.A., CCC-SLP of the Baton Rouge General reports that this practice also helps babies develop healthy food habits. “Baby-led weaning families are encouraged to dine together which exposes babies to different textures and smells, and they are able explore a variety of foods.” This practice has a positive impact on baby’s other senses, too. She continues, “The baby gets to decide how much food she intakes, and gets to communicate when she is full. With baby-led weaning, babies are encouraged to pick up and grasp foods as a method of sensory exploration.”
How to Start
First and foremost, before you attempt this practice, it is important to discuss it with your baby’s pediatrician. Together, you can make a plan best suited for the needs of your little one. However, once a family determines baby-led weaning is a good fit, there are specific signs to look out for that indicate when a baby is ready for solid foods.
According to Dewberry, interest is critical. “Babies are ready for solid foods when they show an interest in food and have enough core strength to sit upright.” She encourages families to watch their babies and pay attention to subtle cues. “Babies interested in food watch you closely when you eat, they look at the food you are eating, and appear as though they would like for you to share with them. Eager babies will often reach out for the food.” Introducing new foods to an uninterested baby would not be a safe or efficient feeding experience.
In order to safely introduce solid foods, a baby must have adequate core strength to sit up unassisted in a traditional high chair. Experts discourage the use of a soft Bumbo-type seat for feeding as they do not allow for the proper pelvic positioning needed for safe feeding practices.
Know the Risks
If your baby has both interest and strength, introduction of solid foods will more likely be successful. However, as with all feeding practices, there are things to be aware of. “The idea that hand-held pieces of mushy food was a choking hazard never crossed my mind,” says local mom, Breanna Taylor. “I would encourage all mothers to check with their pediatrician to get the complete picture. Everything I read about the practice just listed the benefits.”
The greatest risks involved with this practice is exacerbated gagging and choking. Gagging is a developmentally typical occurrence for babies. “In the six- to nine-month-old baby, he or she uses oral play to manually work back the gag reflex from the front part of the tongue to further back where it will reside through adulthood,” says Dewberry. However, frequent gagging with food introduction can be problematic. “Gagging may worsen reflux, and it may also create a negative feeding experience for baby.” Dewberry, along with many Speech Language Pathologists and Occupational Therapists trained in feeding practices agree that the introduction of some purees may be beneficial in easing this transition, as they aide in intrinsic tongue muscle development.
Choking hazards exist for all babies and children and should always be carefully monitored. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, foods that pose the greatest choking hazard for babies and children ages 6-12 months include raw vegetables, uncut grapes or cherry tomatoes, nuts, hot dogs, hard candy, gummy candy, and marshmallows.
The most important part of the practice is the concept of it actually being baby-led. The nuance to this approach is to listen carefully to the cues from your baby indicating interest, physical readiness, and feeding cues such as when she is full or when she is ready to try something new. Collaboration with a pediatrician is key. Keep in mind that this is not a one-size-fits-all approach and may not be suited for all babies. What’s most important is that feeding is a positive experience for babies. Taylor stresses the importance of letting your baby lead, “I never forced him to eat, it was only if he was willing.” ■