When we think of baby food, we usually think about purees or extremely soft food that can be given to a baby on a spoon. However, there is a way to let your child lead themselves out of milk products into solids. With your help, of course!
As long as you have the right cut foods ready and feed them to your baby in the right way, there should only be a few bumps on the way to solids.
In this guide, let’s look at what baby-led weaning (BLW) is, how you know you’re ready to start, the best foods to give your baby every month, and some tips and tricks to get most of the stress and pain out of the way.
An extremely helpful tip when it comes to baby-led parenting is to remember not to compare! Respecting that every baby is different is the best way to approach BLW.
What is baby-led weaning?
Baby-led weaning is when you allow your baby to move themselves from breast milk or formula to solid foods without necessarily passing through a purée or a spoon fed phase.
That is how traditional weaning usually goes.
This will not be true for all families. It is always best to figure out what is best for you and your baby. However, the truth is that babies, developmentally, begin to develop an interest in solid foods and in trying new flavors and textures.
This kind of weaning depends on following the baby's lead and supporting them with the right nutrients and foods. Being messy is okay! Finesse, such as feeding themselves with a spoon, will naturally follow development of fine motor control (the ability to hold and control small items).
At what age can you start baby-led weaning?
Developmentally, your baby should be at least 6 months old. They should at least be able to bring food to their mouth with a hand. (Obviously, or else they can't feed themselves at all.)
We say "developmentally" because some babies may have different milestones. Check with your pediatrician if you're not sure!
How to start baby-led weaning
Here are some steps you can follow when starting the baby-led weaning approach.
- Set up for solid foods. It's better not to decide to let the baby figure out solids on the fly. Get ready with a high chair or a large eating tray, nothing breakable nearby, and nothing interesting in your baby's reach besides food.
- Show your baby what's expected. They are at an exploratory age, meaning everything (to them) is edible. At the same time, this means that food does not look like food. Offer the fruit or vegetable to your baby to hold, or even have your own version that you can show and eat.
- Allow your baby to explore. More often than not, your baby will want to know what everything tastes like. Let them mouth at the food, figure out how to chew (yes, with their gums) on their own, and offer approval and affirmation when they do something right.
- Don't worry about unfinished food. The whole idea of "weaning" is helping your baby transition from milk or formula to other foods, including solid food. Expect your baby to leave food on their plate, and resist the urge to lessen their milk or formula feeding to encourage them to eat solids.
Best baby-led weaning foods by age
Avoid using utensils for this stage of weaning. Your baby will need to master two skills at the same time, and this may lead to feeding frustration.
Utensils may be used later, when your baby has already begun to start solid foods.
Avoid being over-directional when your baby is eating. Allow them to take their time exploring how the fruit or vegetable feels and tastes, allow them to enjoy the experience to the fullest.
Move at your baby's pace! As babies grow and develop, they become more and more curious and eager to explore the tastes of even inedible things.
Trust this instinct and allow your baby to move at their own pace.
Baby-led weaning first foods 6 months
Your baby is moving their eating habits from milk or formula to solids, so try not to introduce any strong-tasting food groups right away.
Start with softened fruits or vegetables with milder tastes that are easy to hold and feed themselves with, such as steamed broccoli, and then widen the range from there.
Feed them one food separately, just two or three sets at a time, but never changing all three first foods at the same time.
Here are some first foods you can try:
- Apples, sliced and then cooked until soft
- Avocados, sliced
- Bananas, sliced vertically
- Broccoli, separated by cluster and steamed
- Carrots, sliced and then steamed or boiled until soft
- Cucumbers, peeled and sliced
- Green beans, steamed or boiled until soft
- Nectarines, sliced
- Peaches, sliced and served ripe
- Pears, sliced and steamed until soft or served ripe
- Peas, cooked until very soft
- Plums, sliced and steamed until soft or served ripe
- Squash, cut into pieces and steamed or boiled until soft
- Sweet potato, peeled, cut into pieces, and cooked until soft
Baby-led weaning foods for 6-8 months old
As your baby gets better at eating finger foods, it's time to introduce a wider range of tastes and textures. You can add a little meat and some grains to the same foods (fruit and vegetables).
To add to the list we shared earlier, here are some age-appropriate foods you can give. Again, change up the foods one kind at a time, to make things easier for your baby.
- Apricots, sliced and served ripe
- Chicken, sliced thin and cooked until very soft
- Bread, pitta, or toast cut into finger foods
- Zucchini , peeled and cooked until soft
- Mango, cut into pieces and served ripe
- Oatcakes, cut small enough for a child to hold
- Parsnips, peeled and cooked until soft
- Pasta, cut into pieces and cooked until soft
- Pumpkin, peeled and cut into pieces and then cooked until soft
- Rice cakes (unsalted), cut small enough for a child to hold
- Turkey, sliced thin and cooked until very soft
- White fish, carefully deboned
Baby-led weaning foods for 8-10 months old
Congratulations! Your baby can start eating solids through combination foods and even tasting some of the meals you and your whole family normally eat.
If it looks like they're starting to master eating with their hands, you can start to introduce the concept of eating with a spoon!
This especially works with food like shredded cheese, ground beef, scrambled eggs, or mashed sweet potato.
Additional foods or preparation styles you can add to your baby's diet:
- Asparagus, steamed soft
- Beans, dried and cooked until soft
- Beef, cut into thin strips and cooked until soft
- Buckwheat, formed into smaller bite-sized pieces or eaten with a spoon
- Cauliflower, sliced by stalk and steamed until soft
- Cheese sticks
- Cherries, cut in half and the seeds removed
- Cottage cheese
- Cream cheese
- Eggs, boiled and sliced for easy holding
- Eggplant, peeled and sliced if large
- Figs, served fully ripe
- Flax, ground into meal or introduced as oil into food
- Grapes, cut in half and the seeds removed
- Khorasan wheat pasta, pre-formed into easy-to-hold pieces and cooked
- Leeks, boiled until soft
- Melon, sliced and served fully ripe
- Onions, sliced and served with other foods to manage the taste
- Papaya, sliced and served fully ripe
- Pork, cut into pieces and cooked until soft
- Potato (white) or sweet potato, sliced and cooked until soft
- Salmon, cut into pieces and cooked
- Turnip, sliced and cooked until soft
As you can see, a lot of these assume that your baby is already starting to use utensils.
Remember not to change the eating style right away, but transition from purely finger foods to foods that require the help of a spoon to eat.
Baby-led weaning foods for 10-12 months old
At this point, your baby is probably drinking less milk or formula and eating more solids. Congratulations, they're really getting the hang of it!
You can now start to add heavier foods and foods with stronger acid concentrations. Again, not all at once, and observe how your baby responds with each food change.
Some foods to add:
- Kiwi, peeled and sliced
- Oranges, sliced and with all seeds and stringy bits removed to avoid choking
- Spinach, chopped finely and served with other foods
- Strawberries, sliced and served ripe
- Sweet corn, cut off the cob and cooked until soft
- Tomatoes, sliced
Foods to avoid while doing BLW
Before you get too excited, remember that there are some foods that should never be served to your baby before they turn 1 year old, or older.
Here is a list of foods to avoid serving:
- Cow's milk. Its cream content may be too much for babies to digest. However, the processed form in yogurt should be fine.
- Honey. While a natural and organic food, it has some elements that may cause botulism, a nerve-attacking illness caused by a toxin, in babies.
- Salt or sugar. Natural foods have their own sugar, and too much sodium is not good for babies. Avoiding any additions will also encourage your children to appreciate healthier food in the future.
- Foods that may become a choking hazard. You may have noticed that almost every one of the foods we suggested also has a recommended preparation style.
- The foods have to be small enough and soft enough for a baby to feed themselves without stress or pain. This means no whole nuts.
- Any large amounts of nut butter or similar foods can also become choking hazards.
- Always start with bigger pieces, and adjust according to how your baby will eat finger foods.
Baby-led weaning and choking
Many parents are hesitant to try baby-led weaning because it can be rather terrifying to see and hear their baby as they learn how to handle these first foods. There is always a possibility of choking, which no parent wants to risk.
First of all, let us talk about the difference between what happens if a baby is gagging and what happens if a baby is choking.
What is gagging?
"Gagging" happens when the baby's throat senses a threatened obstruction or blockage. The baby's body reacts to prevent the blockage from happening. The sounds are coughing, gurgling, or a throaty "uhhh."
Monitoring your baby but allowing the reflex will help them learn how to manage the food that enters their mouths, such as nut pieces or whole nuts.
This is a survival reflex they need.
What is choking?
On the other hand, "choking" happens when the baby's throat is already obstructed or blocked. The sounds the baby makes will be more high-pitched, like whistles, as there may only be a very little space left in the baby's throat.
The baby may also not be able to make a sound, which is much more dangerous.
What can you do if your baby starts choking?
If this happens, do not try to take the food out of your baby's mouth; it will risk pushing it deeper. Deliver light but firm back-blows between the shoulder blades to help the lungs expel the food with air.
Light chest thrusts on the sternum, going in and then upward, should also help.
One way to lessen the possibility of choking is to make sure that your baby's portion of food is small enough for you to track what they are putting in their mouths.
Especially in the earlier months, your baby first foods should not be anything that they can put into their mouths in one go.
For more insight on chocking and potential chocking hazards, visit our resource about Top 7 Choking Food Hazards for Babies and Toddlers.
Tips for successful baby-led weaning
Tip #1: Keep your baby company while they eat
Your baby is at the age where they want to put absolutely everything into their mouth. This is a good thing for BLW!
You can communicate to them what first foods you want them to eat by showing approval and affirmation throughout the meal. Every time they put something into their mouths, give them a big smile and a cheer.
At this point, developmentally, your baby is very attuned to your emotions. If they sense you are not comfortable with them putting things in their mouth, they may gain anxiety during the process.
Your manner is crucial to making the whole BLW experience a good one for both you and your baby.
Tip #2: Be intentional about when BLW is happening
BLW should not be an afterthought with no preparation. This may lead to unsatisfactory results, which will put unnecessary stress on both the parent and the baby.
Do your best to serve baby with BLW in a straight-backed high chair that supports proper posture and swallowing. A reclining or playing baby, or a baby in a stroller or a carseat, has less control over the food they put in their mouth.
Less control over the food they are trying to eat may make the whole eating experience stressful for your baby. We do not want them to learn two lessons at the same time.
If you are on the move, prepare milk, formula, or a purée.
Tip #3: Watch for food allergies
We explain more in our FAQs, but one of the main tips is to watch out for your baby's reactions to different foods.
If anyone in your family has a history of allergies to a specific food that is not one of the more common allergens, you may want to watch closer when introducing them into your baby's diet.
The idea is not to avoid these first foods, but to introduce them carefully and manage portions without taking them out completely. Scroll down to see our FAQs on managing allergens.
Tip #4: Coach any caregivers in BLW
Your progress in BLW may be set back if your baby's caregiver does not approach feeding the same way as you do. Take the time necessary to instruct and reassure the caregiver.
If you are not completely sure about entrusting BLW to someone else, the caregiver can provide your baby with milk or formula instead, but not with solids or purées delivered with a spoon.
Do I have to choose between baby-led weaning and purée feeding?
Okay, we have been a little bit firm about BLW not including purée feeding, but we also know that this kind of transition food cannot always be avoided. Sometimes our schedules or ingredients present do not allow us to do pure BLW in the way that we want.
Are purées completely out of the question?
Firstly, are purées bad? Will they set your baby's development back irreparably? The answer, of course, is no. Purées are generally healthy and easy to prepare, bring, and feed to your baby.
However, purées are usually fed with a preloaded spoon, which limits your baby's opportunities to play and explore food for themself. The feeding takes more of your time, and there is more of an urgency for the baby to finish their food, which can lead to anxiety later on and an inability to read hunger cues.
what's the best way to go from here?
If you are committed to BLW, we suggest going through with it all the way. In this way, you skip the spoon feeding phase and move from finger foods to your baby learning how to feed themself with utensils.
What size should food be for baby-led weaning?
We suggest that food should be as big as your forefinger, about the same length and width. This should be comfortable enough for your baby to hold and bite the ends off.
We do say "sliced" in some of our instructions, but don't take those as the normal thin slices we do for salads or pies. If you need to use your actual finger for reference, that should be fine!
what are some questions you can ask yourself as you cut?
If you are cutting the food into pieces, such as meat for example, maintain some length and continue to make it as wide as your forefinger. Always try to imagine your baby holding the piece of food and lifting it to their mouth.
Can they eat it while holding it, or does it disappear into their fist? Would it be too big for them to hold?
Will my baby actually eat much food with BLW?
Your baby will probably not finish their food the first time, or the second or third time. Maybe not for a few weeks! As you adjust to your baby's leading, you will discover how much food to prepare. Always try to prepare a little more than they can eat, so you can observe if their appetite has grown.
Should i lessen my baby's milk to encourage them to eat solids?
Not at all! It is a great idea to give your baby a variety to choose from, as they will naturally begin to drink less milk or formula as they increase their intake of solids. You can begin to offer solids before milk during their regular feeding times, so that they have a choice and can begin to transition completely.
How do I know if my baby is allergic to new foods?
A study by the Institute of Clinical Medicine at the University of Oslo (in Norway) shows that the more allergenic foods that are introduced earlier, the less likely it is that allergies will develop in children. Know the top allergens (these include nuts, wheat, soy, and eggs, among others) and work small amounts into the food you give your baby.
It is recommended to introduce one allergen at a time, to monitor your baby's reaction. If you observe any allergic reaction, consult with your pediatrician about the best way to continue introducing the food so that your baby develops resistance to allergic reactions.
You may want to ask your pediatrician to recommend some baby-friendly antihistamine to you in the case of severe allergic attacks. Introduce allergens vigilantly, and never before your baby is due to sleep. A sleeping baby may not immediately show difficulty in breathing, for example. Prepare adequately and plan to help your baby adjust.
BLW may be new to you, but now you are well-equipped to start! Trust your baby's instincts and look forward to the experience!