You might think that feeding a new baby would be simple, but you would be wrong. Recommendations for how to feed an infant (breastmilk or formula? when to start solids? which solids to start first?) have changed over the years, and these days there are several different schools of thought on what's "best" for baby. When my mom was raising me, her pediatrician told her when to start infant rice cereal, and so that’s what she did. With my own child, I did a lot of research and reading before even considering starting solid foods. A friend turned me on to the idea of letting baby take the reins, and after much discussion, my spouse and I decided we'd try baby-led weaning as our solid-food method of choice.
What is baby-led weaning (BLW for short)? It’s a method for introducing solid food to a baby where the baby, well, leads. It doesn’t have anything to do with weaning in the sense that you typically hear that word in the U.S. The name was coined by Gill Rapley in the U.K., and there the term “weaning” was meant to introduce solid foods to baby. Seems pretty self-explanatory and simple, right?
There’s some great instructions for BLW out there, but the basic idea is that babies are given table foods rather than “baby food” starting at 6 months of age (or sometimes later!) and the babies feed themselves, instead of being spoon fed by their caregiver. This way, babies get to control if and how much they eat, and experience a wide variety of flavors and textures early on.
In preparation for our son’s 6-month “birthday,” we wanted to give baby-led weaning a shot. We settled on 10 days of trying — more than a week and less than two weeks in case he hated it and we’d need to try something else — and we decided to kick things off with a big family dinner. We planned out a meal the whole family could enjoy so that our son would see us eating the same foods that were on his plate and be tempted to give them a try.
On the recommendation of several people in a BLW Facebook group, we decided on sweet potatoes for our first big meal. My wife and I would have loaded baked sweet potatoes (yum) and the baby would have plain baked sweet potatoes, cut into a strip shape to be easier for tiny hands to hold.
I was incredibly nervous in the lead up to the dinner. What if he gagged? What if he choked? What if something else bad that I hadn’t thought of yet happened? Also, like most new parents, I tend to feel like my kid is growing up way too fast, and as I pulled his food out of the oven I thought, “I didn’t think I’d be cooking for my son this soon!” and I almost started to cry. But we put out him in his high chair, and put three strips on his tray, and for better or worse, we went all in.
He clearly assumed that those three orange strips of sweet potato were brand new toys, and he was excited about them. He swiped at them, got one in his hand, and then, like any baby, brought it to his mouth.
I have never seen such a shocked and appalled expression in my life. It clearly wasn’t what he expected, having mostly tasted wooden and plastic toys in the past. He also seemed shocked that it was mushy. Everyone had said that the first few days he would probably just lick and taste the food, but right away he broke off a piece into his mouth.
And he gagged. Which is normal and not really that big of a deal, but I very nearly had a heart attack. He spit out the orange mush, looked at us like we had tried to trick him, and then tried to push his tray away.
We were having spaghetti for dinner, which is not considered safe for BLW at the very start, so we decided to give him the sweet potato strips again. We thought that now that he knew what it was, maybe he would like it more. For variety, we also gave him a few pieces of green apple.
He picked up the sweet potato, but seemed afraid to put it near his mouth. It was really cute, actually. He would wave it around in the air, but carefully avoid his mouth region. I ended up pointing out the apples on his tray to him, and he was pretty excited to give that a try.
He was totally shocked by the sourness at first, but then he started to laugh. He didn’t eat any, but he was happy to taste the apples over and over again. Based on my understanding of baby led weaning, I considered that a win.
First of all, I cheated. In the morning, I was enjoying my lactation smoothie, and he seemed interested, so I let him eat a little off my finger. He absolutely loved it, and cried when I refused to give him more than two tastes.
For dinner, we ordered takeout from a nearby Bangladeshi restaurant.
This is where it gets interesting. Many people believe that feeding babies bland, spice-less, foods has contributed to a whole generation of kids (like me!) becoming extremely picky eaters. So the theory is, that if we introduce our babies to really flavorful foods that we like early on, we’ll be less likely to be preparing a separate kids menu until they are teenagers. I totally believe in this theory, but I also am a nervous mom. I was about to give my kid curry. This is when I got the most excited (what if he liked it!) and started to have my doubts (what if he hated it! and was I a terrible mother for subjecting him to this?).
The dish that we had to share with him contained green peas, which are a choking hazard for babies who aren’t used to eating yet. So I carefully took off just some of the creamy, spicy, sauce, and one piece of paneer. For the sauce, we decided to try giving him a “pre-loaded spoon” which is basically just what it sounds like.
He picked up the spoon, and immediately dumped most of it’s contents in his lap. But after that, he started working on getting it in his mouth. There was enough left on the spoon for him to definitely be able to taste it, and initially he made the same face he made with the sweet potato … but then he grinned. As my wife and I waited with baited breath, barely touching our own food, he went back for more. He licked almost all of the sauce off the spoon, and thoughtfully moved it around in his mouth, and very dramatically swallowed.
Then, to our surprise, this 6-month-old baby who had never even held a spoon before tried to figure out how to dip the spoon into the pile of sauce on his tray. I confess that I couldn’t take his frustration, and after watching him cry, I helped him reload the spoon. The whole process was extremely messy and sauce went basically everywhere, but he loved it so we were all happy. It was really magical to see this practically new little person trying so hard to figure it out, and really enjoying himself in the process.
I made roasted carrots. He wouldn’t even taste them. I think maybe they looked too much like sweet potatoes? It was a huge, huge fail.
I was a little disappointed, but I tried not to take it personally, and reminded myself that he was still learning. Hilariously, he kept lifting them almost to his mouth, and then pulling them away in horror.
We made steamed broccoli as a side dish to go with our dinner, and it was the most appropriate BLW food that we had, so we decided to give it a try. We also decided to give him apple slices again, that way if he didn’t like it he would have something familiar.
At first, he really struggled with how to manage the florets. Do you eat the stem or the top part? Which part do you hold? Why are there little green specks everywhere? But eventually, he got the floret in his little, toothless mouth, and pulled off a little piece. He was very surprised, but he managed to gum it for awhile, and then swallowed it without even gagging. After that huge feat, he was overwhelmed and totally done with the whole ordeal. It was starting to really feel like we were on the right track, although it was stressful to see him stressed out.
Broccoli had stolen the show, my wife and I ate the apples.
There are some very hardcore BLW advocates will give you crap for ever pureeing anything for your baby, because they are so ardently against pureed “baby food.” I think that’s stupid. If the idea is to introduce them to many different textures, one of those textures can be smooth. Also, there are some things that really aren’t safe that early on, but you don’t want to be cooking separate meals because that is the opposite of the point.
On day six, we made lentil soup and put it in the blender for the baby. Some people think that’s cheating, but I’m not sorry. It looked gross as hell, but he loved it. He spoon-fed himself and ate more than I expected. He also smeared soup all over his face and torso. When he had a difficult time with the spoon, we tried to encourage him to use his fingers instead, but he refused. My child is obsessed with spoons, apparently.
Broccoli again, and oh my goodness did he put away some broccoli this time! I know, because I changed his diapers the next day. So gross.
I was really shocked that we were only a week in, and already he was actually eating a decent amount, and apparently really enjoying himself. It felt like we were starting to get into a groove with dinner time, and I was prouder of him than I could have imagined. I mean who thinks they’re going to be proud of someone for pooping out broccoli?
Since he was so into the spoon previously, we decided to make mashed potatoes and see what he thought of those. We also made sautéed green beans, and gave him some leftover broccoli florets, in case he wanted something familiar.
He refused to touch either the green bean or the broccoli because there was a spoon and I guess spoons are just way more exciting. I only helped him with the spoon a couple of times, he mostly fed himself, and he ate more than he had ever eaten before. He just kept on smiling and eating more potatoes. My wife, who adores mashed potatoes, was very excited to share this magic moment with him.
My wife made collard greens for dinner. We were pretty nervous about the idea of him trying to eat them whole, since they can be a pretty stringy and he was still really new to all this. But they’re full of iron and other vitamins, so we wanted him to at least get the chance to try them. After some debate, we agreed to resort to the blender again. We also gave him some plain apple sauce.
The collard goo ended up really thin and runny, and it was a huge struggle for me not to step in and help him. However, I managed to hold myself back this time, and he repeatedly dipped his spoon in both the collards and the apple sauce … and then mixed them together. He really seemed to love everything, and splashed the slop all over the place. His spoon skills seemed to be improving, but also his system was to dip the spoon rather than to scoop, and he was just as likely to use the handle of the spoon to feed himself as he was to use the actual, well, spoon part. I was so proud of him.
We went to his grandparents house for a late Thanksgiving Dinner. They have been so incredibly supportive of all of our less-than-normal parenting decisions, and we thought we had adequately explained BLW ahead of time. However, we must have not been quite as clear as we thought, because we got a phone call before the dinner to let us know that they had purchased jarred baby food, and ask if they should put some turkey through the food processor for him. My wife and I don’t really eat meat, but we aren’t against our kid trying it, and the babies in the baby led-weaning Facebook group definitely eat their meat whole. We said to just leave it alone.
On his tray he had mashed potatoes, broccoli, cranberry sauce, and a bit of turkey. He tried the cranberry sauce and the broccoli, but mostly he was very potato focused. He did not go for the turkey. His grandparents, who I think had previously been a little unsure about this, were delighted to watch him confidently feed himself. It ended up being a lot of fun! He was squishing things together and shoveling spoonfuls of potatoes into his mouth, and generally making a mess and having a great time.
Then he choked on some potato.
It was the scariest moment of my life. I had watched plenty of YouTube videos about how to tell the difference between gagging and choking, and what to do if baby chokes, prior to starting all of this. But in that moment I felt totally helpless and unprepared. I felt like I should have done more, as a parent, to be ready for something bad to happen. One second he was eating happily, and the next second his eyes were wide and panicked, his mouth was open, and he clearly wasn’t breathing. I turned to my wife, who knew as well as I did what was happening. But his grandparents did not know what was happening, and as I braced myself to spring into action I heard is grandmother say, “well he’s doing pretty good, he’s not even crying!” and my wife respond with, “that’s the problem.”
Then as quickly as the crisis began, it was over. He gagged, pushed the potatoes out of his airways, and started breathing again, and then started to fuss. My wife said, “I think that’s enough for tonight!” and quickly pulled him out of his chair to clean him up. It’s hard to say for sure, but I think he was eating too fast because he was excited and forgot to swallow before shoving more potatoes into his mouth.
Initially, this did make us question our decision to go with baby-led weaning. The next day though, we realized that what he choked on was pureed potato, the exact consistency of baby food. We did decide to focus on foods he would eat with his hands for a few days after that though, in an attempt to slow him down. It hasn't happened again.
Letting Our Son Lead — Was It Working For Us?
I really, really love baby-led weaning, and am so glad that we decided to try it. Before doing this, I imagined we’d be the kind of parents who made our own homemade baby food who maybe once in awhile broke down and bought a jar. But because he mostly eats what we eat, when we eat, so there’s a lot less extra prep. I also love that he's already feeding himself, and that introducing utensils won’t be something weird and new we do later on. I never have to do the “here comes the airplane” move, he’s learning to regulate his own appetite, and I actually get to sit down and enjoy my dinner (or at least half of it) most nights. And he’s learning and enjoying himself. What more could a mama want?
The biggest downsides really all seem to be mess related. My own mother has assured me that feeding a baby would be messy no matter what, but this is extraordinarily messy. When he’s done with a particular food, he drops it in his high chair. He splatters liquid-y foods and drops big pieces of food. His favorite right now is broccoli, and when he eats it he gets those little green specks everywhere. There’s no getting around it, after he’s eaten we have to vacuum, wipe down the high chair, wash the tray, and immediately give him a bath. As we transition into more than one meal per day, all of that work is really really intimidating. Is it worth it? I think so, most days, but I’m not always totally sure.
If I had it to do over again, I would have taken an infant CPR class (rather than just watching tutorials) before we started. But even after our one scare, I’m still happy with our decision. My 6 month old already likes curry, and is constantly excited to try new things. I don’t want to imply that those positives are worth taking huge risks, but I also don’t think, based on my experience, that the risk is really all that much greater than with conventional baby feeding strategies.