Next up in my Transitions series? Starting solid foods! With Big M, when she had her 6 month check-up, the pediatrician told me I should start her on solid foods. As a first time mom, I asked him what to do and followed his directions exactly: started with cereal, and added pureed fruits and veggies one at a time to test for allergies. By about 8 months, Big M was increasingly interested in feeding herself, and since I always included her at the table for mealtimes, I just began to feed her ‘real’ food from my own plate, quickly abandoning baby food all together. By the time Lil’ M came along, I had discovered a name for this methodology: Baby Led Weaning.
Baby Led Weaning
Baby led weaning, simply defined, means letting your baby feed themselves solid food from the time they begin eating it, around 6 months of age. No mush, no purees. Weaning, in this usage, is meant in the British sense where it is used to convey the addition of complementary foods, not the American definition, which we often use to convey giving up breastfeeding.
But my baby doesn’t even have teeth yet?! They don’t know how to chew! They will choke! By presenting food to your baby in appropriate-sized pieces, teeth or not, they will learn how to manipulate food in their mouth, chew and swallow, without choking. When first foods are presented as cereal, spooned mush and purees, babies learn to swallow and don’t learn to chew until later. When they do first encounter lumps, they try to swallow them whole, leading to choking. With Baby Led Weaning (“BLW”), babies learn to chew first. At first, they might chew and spit most of it out as they grow accustomed to textures and moving food in their mouth with their tongues. Don’t worry about how much they are eating; think of each meal as a sensory experience to expose them to new foods, textures, all while teaching them how to eat: chew, swallow, handle food, and feed themselves.
The single biggest reason I did baby led weaning with Lil’ M was the ease and convenience it brought to starting solids with a baby, especially while already feeding a toddler. With Big M, I had to bring baby food and baby spoons to restaurants and whenever we traveled. I was making separate meals or preparing batches of baby food 1-2x a week. As Lil’ M approached the 6 month mark, the thought of making three separate meals a night – a grown up dinner, a toddler dinner and a baby dinner – struck me as totally ridiculous. With Big M, we always fed her at the table with us while we were eating, she observed us eating and quickly was far more interested in our food and feeding herself. Lil’ M was even more aggressive on this front, since from day 1, she was always trying to keep up with her big sister. Baby led weaning just made common sense.
As a few added bonuses… whether personality driven or having a big sister to look up, Lil’ M’s dexterity and fine motor skills accelerated at a dramatically faster pace than her older sister. At 18 months, her pencil grip is better than Big M’s at 3 years old. Her palette is much more diverse, and even with increasing strong will and independence at 18 months, she will eat just about anything we give her. And last but not least, with no purees, there are no ‘separate’ meals, leading to less clean up, less space taken up in the freezer and pantry, and less money spent on baby food!
How to start?
This is the best part – to start, all you have to do is cut food to appropriate-sized pieces, place it on the tray of their highchair, and let them try it.
The best way to offer foods to start is in ‘fistable’ chunks or strips. The texture should be soft enough to squish between your thumb and finger under pressure, but firm enough that it doesn’t disintegrate when they try to pick it up. Good first foods might include sliced, ripe pears, sliced avocado, half a banana, sliced melon, ripe peaches, or steamed or roasted carrots.
As they become more adept at feeding themselves, they will quickly develop their pincer grasp – the ability to pick up and grasp food between their thumb and fingers. Most babies develop a crude pincer grasp by 7 or 8 months, and refine it to be able to pick up individual pieces of food, like Cheerios, by 9 to 11 months. With BLW, Lil’ M had a pretty decent pincer grasp by 7 months. She was able to pick up cubed pieces of food and feed herself with relative ease and consistency. Once they master this, you can begin offering them food in smaller pieces – ideally the size of your pinky nail. Here’s Lil’ M chowing down on cubes of roasted chicken breast at 7 months.
Good First Foods
Anything cut to the appropriate sizes and textures (as indicated above) can be a great first food for BLW. You can feed them directly from your plate, whatever meal you are having. Just try to avoid adding additional salt or sugar to first foods. Other spices and herbs are more than fine, and a great way to expand palettes, though be careful early on when you are still testing for allergies.
- Fruits: melon, berries (halved or quartered), peaches, bananas, ripe pears, grapes (quartered), kiwis
- Vegetables: steamed carrots, roasted squash, roasted sweet potato, cucumber, avocado, asparagus, tomatoes, green beans, peas, broccoli, cauliflower, steamed beets, mushrooms
- Proteins: beans, chickpeas (remove skins), hard boiled or scrambled egg yolks, ground beef or turkey, roasted chicken, beef, or pork
- Dairy: cheese, frozen yogurt dots
- Grains: whole grain toast, waffles, pancakes, grilled cheese, whole grain pasta, wild rice, quinoa, barley
Two of the girls favorite recipes? Green Mac & Cheese and these Roasted Veggies. You can find more great lists here and here. And for some added inspiration, here is Lil’ M at various ages with different foods!
FAQ, Rules and Tips
What size should you cut food?
As a rule of thumb, if food is mashable, you can offer it in fistable strips they can bite and gnaw on. If food is firmer, you should offer it in smaller pieces, cut to the size of your pinky nail.
Do you still offer foods one at a time?
I did, to start. I introduced new foods roughly once every 3 days to check for allergies. I started with fruits, then veggies, then grains and meat.
Never leave baby unattended while eating.
While the baby is eating, never leave them unattended. Early on, you can make chewing motions as they eat to encourage them to chew their food. You should always watch them for any sign of choking. I have only ever had to physically remove food from Lil’ M’s mouth once. They may make gagging sounds early on as they learn to move food around in their mouth with their tongue, chew and swallow. Actual choking is very rare, but you still need to monitor closely while eating.
Never place food in baby’s mouth.
The entire concept behind baby led weaning is to allow babies to feed themselves. Believe it or not, when they control the food entering their mouth, they are far less likely to choke than when we put it in for them. They will control portions and eat until they are no longer hungry.
Don’t worry about how much they eat.
Food before 12 months is about the experience and learning to eat. Babies will still get most of their nutrition from breastmilk or formula, so be sure solid feedings to not replace breastmilk, but instead, are in addition to them. I always sat Lil’ M at the table and offered her food for breakfast, lunch and dinner when the rest of us ate, in addition to her nursing sessions every 3 hours or so.
What are the best BLW accessories?
You really don’t need anything other than the food you are eating yourself. But there are things you can invest in for ease of clean-up. I would recommend a highchair with a removable tray that is easy to clean. We used the Graco 4-in-1 Seating System. It will grow with your child, and the seat portion can be removed and strapped to a chair. We also found removing all the upholstered seating made clean-up much easier too. The entire tray does come off, but better still, the top layer snaps off and is dishwasher safe. You can serve them directly on the tray, as dishes and utensils at this stage are just invitations to throw!
When Lil’ M would still tolerate a bib, I was a big fan of the BABYBJORN Soft Bib – it has a great pocket to catch pieces they drop and can be washed in the sink as well.
And when they do finally graduate to dishes and cutlery, we are big fans of the Boon Catch Bowl with Spill Catcher. The suction cup on the bottom sticks to the highchair tray, strongly enough Lil’ M couldn’t pull it off, and it will even stick to our wood table. The extended lip is great too to catch drips as they learn to use a spoon with soups, yogurt or small grains, like rice, quinoa or small pasta.
Ready to skip baby food with your baby and go straight to the real thing? At what age did you start solids with your baby? What was their favorite first food? Check out our BLW Pinterest Board for great lists of foods, more tips and recipes!