Imagine a nine-month-old baby chowing down on pork ribs. It’s routine for many families who practice baby-led weaning. Babies are encouraged to self-feed finger food rather than eat purees from a spoon.
Registered dietitian Jennifer House’s how-to book on the topic was released this month. We sat down with her to chat about the basics and benefits of baby-led weaning.
Laurel Gregory: What is baby-led weaning?
Jennifer House: Baby-led weaning is when you start solids — skipping the purees — and go right to finger foods and the baby self-feeds.
LG: Why do you think children benefit from going straight to solids?
JH: I think it has a lot of benefits. One: it has the potential to be more nutritious. Whole foods have lots of nutrients in them, whereas purees, the number two ingredient is often water so they’re watered down. It encourages the development of dexterity…
It encourages a healthy relationship with food so the babies have that full control and choose the amount to eat right from the start.
You can do that with purees but it’s a little bit harder. You often see parents: ‘OK, here comes the air plane with the spoon,’ or, ‘Please finish the jar.’
Baby-led weaning is easy. It’s less expensive. You’re not spending your time in the grocery store or the kitchen making your purees… surveys have found that parents who practice baby-led weaning are less stressed so they’re more relaxed about the whole process which is easier for them and of course benefits the baby too… Another benefit is introduction of different textures, different tastes early on leads to more adventurous eaters so maybe less picky eating when they are older.
LG: What are the myths that keep parents away from the practice?
JH: Parents are really worried about choking. It was great to see another randomized control trial — that BLISS trial — come out to say that the baby-led weaning group, they actually had no higher risk of choking compared to the control group. I think a lot of times parents are concerned about gagging. So their baby gags and they go, ‘Oh no, he’s choking!’ and they get scared but it’s just a part of learning how to eat, right? It’s not unsafe. It’s actually a safety mechanism.
LG: Don’t they actually have a stronger gag reflex than we do?
JH: They do and it’s quite far-forward in their tongue when they’re six months so it’s protective when they are choking. Maybe it’s great to learn how to eat foods while they still have that strong gag reflex. It does move back further in their mouth as they age so by nine months they won’t be gagging as much.
WATCH: Baby nutrition specialist Jessica Coll talks about baby-Led weaning, where babies learn to feed themselves solid foods.
LG: What is your advice about how to start?
JH: I like to focus on the high-iron foods. Often, we’ll see parents give baby an apple for lunch and say, ‘Look we’re baby-led weaning’ but it doesn’t have enough calories, doesn’t have enough iron in it. So if it’s not a vegetarian family, meat is the best source of iron.
Yes, you can feed your baby ribs. A rib or a chicken leg cooked in a pressure cooker or slow cooker will be nice and tender and they’re able to grasp on and eat that.
Or ground meat, like meat balls, canned fish, eggs. We’ll use infant cereal too but just bake it into products like a pancake and then the have a fortified finger food.
LG: And start at six months?
JH: Around six months. There are some developmental signs to watch for. You want to make sure your baby can sit up with support, so sit up in their chair and be able to spit food out if they need, and have that trunk and neck control and also have that interest in eating too. Usually that happens around six months for most babies.
LG: How do you know that babies get enough calories through this method?
JH: (Researchers) measured the babies Body Mass Index (BMI) at age 12 and 24 months, comparing a group of baby-led weaners versus a control group who started solids with purees. They were expecting the baby-led weaners to be thinner (or “less overweight”). Actually there was no difference between the two groups in their BMIs at age 12 or 24 months. So that would help prove that at least the baby-led weaners can get enough calories in to grow as well as traditional weaners in the first (and second) year.