Baby-led weaning: A complete guide to first foods
Starting solids is an exciting, messy, and sometimes nerve-wracking time for many parents. Using a baby-led weaning approach won’t help with the mess, but it may help relieve parental stress and help babies foster a healthy relationship with food. Keep reading for a step-by-step guide to getting started.
IN THIS ARTICLE:
What is baby-led weaning?
Baby-led weaning (BLW) is one way to introduce solids by focusing on infant self-feeding, and by serving the family’s table foods from the start. The term was popularized by Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett, co-authors of the self-titled book in 2009. According to Rapley and Murkett, babies should learn to eat by sitting with family at mealtimes and receive plenty of opportunities to practice feeding on their own.
Some advocates argue purees are not part of a BLW approach, but it’s actually quite common for parents and nutrition and feeding professionals alike to practice a combination of both baby-led and traditional weaning.
The term “weaning” isn’t used to mean a quick transition away from breastmilk or formula. All weaning is meant to complement breastmilk or formula intake and to slowly transition your baby to a solid foods diet. Until then, breastmilk and/or formula remain the primary source of nutrition until one year of age, and it’s important not to reduce these feedings once solids are introduced. Babies will naturally reduce their milk or formula feedings on their own as they begin to consume more solid food.
When to start baby-led weaning?
Baby-led weaning should begin at 6 months to ensure the baby's digestive and immune system have enough time to properly develop. Additionally, your baby should show the following signs of readiness before beginning BLW:
Sits up independently with good head and neck control
Loss of tongue thrust reflex
Brings toys or other objects to their mouth
Shows an interest in table foods
How to start baby-led weaning?
Before you begin, make sure to check for signs of readiness (see above). If you have any questions regarding readiness, we recommend checking with your pediatrician before starting solids.
Eating is a skill that requires practice and time to master, much like crawling or walking. Start slowly by offering your baby one solid meal a day ideally as part of family mealtime. Family mealtime can be defined as at least one parent and child eating together. Choose a meal when your baby isn’t tired or hungry— this may vary from day to day!
Set up a safe place to eat
The safest place for a baby to eat is in a highchair. They should be well-supported and able to freely move their arms and hands to reach food off the tray. Baby’s back should be straight, not reclined. Parents and caregivers should sit facing the baby.
Take your time
Give your baby ample time to explore and play with food in the beginning stages. Do what you can to make mealtimes enjoyable and fun for your baby. Do not try to distract your baby while they are eating.
Choose age-appropriate foods
BLW appeals to many parents because it doesn’t require special baby foods. However, family foods need to be prepared and served in a safe, age-appropriate way. Make sure any food served is soft and easily mashed between two fingers. Start with strips of food, about the size of an adult pinky, and progress to smaller diced foods as baby’s feeding skills improve.
Offer food without pressure
Baby-led weaning is just that—led by baby! As a parent, it’s your job to provide food and opportunities to practice self-feeding. It is your baby’s job to decide if they will eat and what they will eat. Never put food into your baby’s mouth or try to make them eat more or less than they want.
Top 6 benefits of baby-led weaning
May lower the risk of obesity
This approach may reduce the risk of obesity later in life due to BLW infants' greater ability to regulate hunger and fullness cues. In fact, studies show toddlers who were weaned using BLW had a lower BMI and incidence of obesity than those who were traditionally spoon-fed. They were also less likely to eat in response to food stimuli, say being offered a snack at a sporting event if they weren’t hungry.
Exposure to a large variety of foods
Although studies aren’t conclusive, there’s reason to believe families who follow a baby-led style will expose their infant to a wider range of foods including more textures and flavors than traditional weaning. Consuming a larger variety of foods is associated with better diet quality and health outcomes.
Encourages development of motor skills
Self-feeding is a key component of BLW and provides babies with many opportunities to develop and practice both gross and fine motor skills. Exploring and picking up foods on their own increases the number of opportunities babies have to practice strength-building movements.
Reduces parental mealtime stress
One study surveyed mothers' attitudes about using a BLW approach and found that they reported the approach was simple, convenient, and easy to fit into family lifestyles and mealtimes. They also reported less stress around mealtimes and introducing foods to their infants.
Increases favorable feeding practices
More and more research is examining the role of parental feeding practices on children’s future health outcomes. In general, practicing baby-led weaning may lead to more favorable feeding styles such as being less likely to restrict foods or pressuring children to eat. However, it isn’t clear if parents who choose BLW are just less likely to use negative feeding strategies or if BLW encourages the development of favorable feeding practices.
Saves time and money
Parents may save time if they were planning to make their own baby foods by simply serving family foods in a safe way. Additionally, the cost of store-bought baby foods tends to be high, so many families notice savings by not having to purchase these foods.
Are there any risks of baby-led weaning?
Overall, when practiced correctly, baby-led weaning is a safe and effective way to introduce solids to an infant. Research shows no greater risk for choking or nutrient deficiency for this method versus a more traditional weaning style. However, parents should be aware of the following concerns before starting.
Mealtimes get messy
Infants who start consuming solids are going to get messy—there’s really no way around it! Part of learning to eat involves exploring and playing with food as well as sometimes missing their mouth. So if you are the type that can’t handle a mess, it might not be for you.
To make clean-up easier, feed baby in just a diaper, invest in wipeable bibs, a BPA-free silicone suction bowl, and a washable splash mat for the floor to catch anything that falls. (Dogs are also great at this, but they're much more maintenance.)
Family foods may not always be suitable for infants
One of the best things about this method is that it doesn’t require a lot of extra cooking or food preparation. However, not all family foods may be suitable for infants such as fast food or meals with added sugars or salt.
These types of foods may negatively impact infants’ immediate health, and may also set them up to prefer these types of foods later in life. While there’s nothing wrong with enjoying these foods in moderation, keep in mind you’ll need to have another option on hand for baby.
Best baby-led weaning foods: Top first foods
While the majority of an infant’s nutritional needs will still be met by breastmilk or formula until about 1 year, complementary foods are still important in boosting an infant’s nutritional intake. For this reason, it’s recommended that a variety of foods be introduced into the diet as early as possible. Include foods from all food groups, not just fruits and vegetables, and add in foods rich in high-priority nutrients such as iron, protein, and fats whenever possible.
During the early stages of BLW, offer food that is easy for your baby to pick up and bring to their mouth. For example, a cooked zucchini stick or floret of broccoli (steamed, boiled, roasted, or stir-fried) can be easy for babies to grab without having to pinch food between their thumb and forefinger. Having food that’s easy to handle can make things less frustrating (and more fun) for everyone.
Iron is responsible for carrying oxygen throughout the body to muscles and organs as well as supports brain development in young children. Needs are increased early in life due to rapid growth. In order to make sure your baby is getting enough, try to include iron-rich food with every meal if possible.
Meat (beef, pork)
Poultry (chicken, turkey)
Fortified breakfast cereal
Protein provides the building blocks to support growth and development in babies and young children. Many protein foods are highly nutrient-dense as well, which is important for babies who only eat small amounts of food at a time.
Meat (beef, pork)
Poultry (chicken, turkey)
Don’t skimp on the fat! Babies need fat for energy, to help with nutrient absorption and certain fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids, are essential for brain development.
Easily incorporate fat into your baby’s meals by choosing full-fat dairy products, using olive oil or butter to prepare vegetables, or spreading nut butter thinly on toast or crackers.
Fruits and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are full of vitamins and minerals that help promote optimal growth and development. They also provide fiber and early exposure increases the likelihood babies will continue to enjoy fruits and veggies later on in life.
Butternut Squash (cooked)
Sweet potatoes (cooked)
Plums (very ripe)
Peaches (very ripe)
Pears (very ripe)
Mango (very ripe)
Baby food charts for baby-led weaning: Sample feeding schedules
The charts below represent what a sample day could look like for a baby that age to help you with a weekly meal plan. But remember, you know your baby best and their day may not look exactly like this. Adapt the schedule in a way that works realistically for your family. Family meals are a cornerstone of BLW, so if it is easier to start with dinner instead of breakfast as suggested, do that. Each day might look a bit different and that’s okay too!
If you’re out during the day, mealtime might end up falling close to nap time. If your baby is too sleepy to take interest in eating solids, it may make more sense to offer breastmilk or formula before a nap than to offer solids and make mealtime stressful. Remember, your baby is still getting the nutrition they need from breastmilk and/or formula.
As your child grows, expect to gradually introduce more meals with solids between their regular feedings of breastmilk/formula. That timeline will look something like this:
|6 months||1 solid meal per day|
|7 - 9 months||2 solid meals per day|
|10 - 11 months||3 solid meals per day|
|12+ months||3 solid meals, 2 snacks per day|
6 month baby-led weaning food chart
At 6 months, baby should be eating 1 solid food meal a day. Food should be cooked until soft enough to mash between your fingers. It should be cut into strips, about the size of an adult pinky, or mashed and pre-loaded onto a spoon.
7 - 9 month baby-led weaning food chart
At 7 - 9 months, baby should be eating 2 solid food meals a day. Food should be cooked until soft enough to mash between your fingers. Food may now be diced into small pieces or mashed and pre-loaded onto a spoon.
10 - 11 month baby-led weaning food chart
At 10 - 11 months, baby should be eating 3 solid food meals a day. Food should be cooked until soft enough to mash between your fingers and cut into small pieces. Children at this age may start using anti-gag utensils more purposefully, but don't expect to put the splash mat away just yet.
12+ month baby-led weaning food chart
At 12 months, baby should be eating 3 solid food meals a day and two snacks. Food should be cooked until soft enough to mash between your fingers and cut into small pieces. At this age, families may choose to introduce whole cow’s milk or an appropriate milk alternative. Talk to your pediatrician or a pediatric registered dietitian about what’s best for your family.
Baby-led weaning FAQ
Q: Is baby-led weaning feasible?
Absolutely! In fact, many parents find baby-led weaning to be simple and low stress. By ensuring your baby is served a variety of foods and continuing to offer breastmilk or formula on demand, it’s possible to meet their nutrient needs with a baby-led weaning approach.
Q: What age should I start baby-led weaning?
Expect to begin around 6 months when your baby shows signs of readiness, such as being able to sit independently with good head and neck control, losing the tongue thrust, bringing toys or other objects to their mouth, and showing an interest in table foods.
Q: Is there a risk for my baby to choke?
There is a risk for choking as infants begin to learn to eat with any method. Research has not shown a baby-led weaning approach to be associated with a higher risk of choking over other weaning methods. In order to lessen the risk of choking, choose safe foods and cook them well, and always watch your baby when they are eating.
Q: Do babies need teeth for baby-led weaning?
Nope! Babies can chew well enough for solid foods with just their gums as long as food is prepared soft enough.
Q: How do I know when baby has had enough?
Babies will indicate they are done eating in a few ways—you just have to watch! When baby is done with a meal, they lose interest in food, oftentimes simply playing with food instead of eating. They may also look away or throw food on the floor. Some parents find it helpful to teach their baby sign language, especially the signs for “more” and “all done”.