There are so many milestones that your baby can reach during their first year, and one of the most fun ones is when they start eating real food. While it might make you a little sad to think that your baby is no longer solely dependent upon you for formula or breastmilk, that wistfulness can quickly wash away as you watch your little one happily attempt to gnaw their way through a pancake. So if you’re debating whether to skip the purees and proceed to soft foods instead, you’ll need to know all about baby-led weaning and what those first foods will look — and taste — like.
What is baby-led weaning?
Much like the term implies, baby-led weaning is when your child starts to depend less on the breast, bottle (or both), and is ready to start solids. But the solids aren’t just pureed, watered down versions of a single fruit or veggie, but rather the foods your family is eating. “Baby-led weaning is skipping purees and starting immediately with finger foods,” Krystyn Parks, MS, RD, IBCLC, a registered pediatric dietitian tells Romper. “You’re following Baby's lead when weaning off breastmilk/formula and moving onto solids, thus putting your child in charge of what foods they eat right from the beginning, since they are feeding themselves.”
Here’s when to start baby-led weaning
There’s nothing like watching your sweet pea covered in, well, peas for that perfect Insta pic. Still, just because your baby looks eager to dive into those dumplings doesn’t mean that they’re ready for solids just yet. “Baby-led weaning or baby-led feeding looks different and initiation times vary for each baby, since development growth is a factor,” Sue-Ellen Anderson-Haynes, RDN, a registered and licensed dietitian nutritionist explains to Romper. “If your baby has specific motor skills, for example, they can sit up without assistance, is able to bring objects to their mouth like teething rings, does not have a troublesome tongue thrust then your baby is most likely ready for baby-led weaning.” Typically, baby-led weaning happens around the 6-month mark, Anderson-Haynes says, when your child might start looking for something more substantial than breastmilk or formula to feel full. The only difference is that when your family sits down to a meal, Baby does, too.
What to keep in mind when starting baby-led weaning
When your child is sitting in their highchair, they might be excited to start eating a five-course meal right away. Even if they’re eagerly eyeing your eggplant parm, you’ll need to manage your baby’s eating expectations. After all, any food that you feed your baby should be safe for your little one to eat. “Choking is a concern when infants starting solids,” Anderson-Haynes explains. “Reduce the risk of choking by keeping your baby close where you can see them eating, placing them in a high chair while eating, and avoid foods that likely cause choking such as foods cut in the shape of a coin, popcorn, grapes, raw veggies, etc.”
Basically, you want to start with soft foods, large enough for baby to hold onto. “All foods should be soft or smooshable,” advises Parks. “For babies just starting out, large pieces work really well as they don't have their pincer grasp, so they hold the food in their fist and then eat whatever is sticking out from it.” You’ll need to cook certain foods (like potatoes or broccoli) or chop them so that they’re appropriate and safe for your baby to consume.
Be mindful of sugar, salt, and spice
Sugar and salt should be limited, and avoid meals with honey for babies under age 1, as it can potentially cause infant botulism. As for spices and stronger flavors, Parks says that babies can handle it, so there’s no reason to serve them bland food. Just be sure to start slowly with spicy or hot foods and adjust it according to what your child prefers.
Keep an eye on allergic reactions
If you’re concerned about food allergies, you can try introducing one food at a time and three days apart to see how your baby tolerates it. “Some of these foods include the top nine allergens (egg, milk, soy, wheat, shellfish, fish, sesame, nuts, peanuts),” says Parks. “I don't recommend introducing them as the first food (in case there is a reaction, we don't want Baby to associate the reaction with ALL solids), but the recommendation is to introduce early and often.” And if food allergies run in the family, consult your child’s pediatrician or allergist to see if or when it would be safe for your child to try these foods.
Baby-led weaning first foods to start with:
- Green beans
- Sweet potato (roasted)
- Apples (cut into straw form)
- Cooked carrots
- Chicken (boiled/cut into strips)
- Thick sliced mango
- Avocado (You can crinkle cut or coat in chia seeds/ground flax/hemp hearts/ground nuts to help make it more grippy)
- Meats (cut into long strips that baby will suck on to get the juices)
- Steamed veggies
- Pureed foods served on a preloaded spoon or in a bowl with baby holding the spoon or eating with their hands
- Omelette strips
- Strips of toast with different spreads such as hummus, yogurt, or a thin layer of nut butter (“These are all potential allergens, so are a great way to expose once you know baby is not allergic to wheat,” says Parks.)
Remember, you’ll still be feeding your baby a bottle or nursing while they’re weaning. If that’s the case, you’ll need to make sure that the foods you offer them have the vitamins and nutrients that they need, advises Anderson-Haynes. “You can still give your baby a bottle or breastfeed while starting baby-led weaning,” she says. “For individualized needs, follow up with your pediatrician or healthcare team to assess and evaluate how your child is growing and to provide the best strategies for a successful outcome.”
Baby-led weaning recipes
The cool thing about baby-led weaning is that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You can still give your baby pureed foods as well as offering them finger foods, too. Here are some recipe suggestions from Stephanie Lauri, RD, a pre- and postnatal dietician, and Trista Best, RD, a registered dietitian.
Pancakes. Blend oats, banana, and egg together and make into pancakes. Cut into strips length-wise.
Coated avocado. Slice avocado and coat it in hemp or chia seeds, making it easier for Baby to hold.
Baked egg cups. Mix six eggs with ½ cup of cooked vegetables (such as broccoli, spinach, chopped mushrooms, peas, etc.), ½ cup shredded cheese, and a splash of milk. Cook in a muffin tin for 20-25 minutes. Once cooked, cut into strips for easy baby handling.
Veggies with dip. Cook veggies (like sweet potato or steamed carrots). Serve with hummus on the side for dipping.
Roasted broccoli florets. Toss 1 cup broccoli with 1 tsp. olive oil. Place on a baking sheet and roast in a preheated 400 F oven for 15-20 minutes or until tender and serve.
Avocado Toast: Toast one piece of whole wheat bread. Mash ¼ of avocado and slather onto toast. Cut toast into four long slices and serve.
Baby-led weaning can encourage your kid to try new foods that are full of flavor. Sure, it might be a messy process, but seeing the look on your child’s face as they get to explore new textures and tastes (and discover their own independence) is satisfying, indeed.
Wikstrom, S., Holst, E. (2017) Infant botulism- why honey should be avoided for children up to one year. Lakartidningen, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28742188/
Krystyn Parks, MS, RD, IBCLC, a pediatric dietitian
Sue-Ellen Anderson-Haynes, MS, RDN, CDCES, LDN, CPT, a registered and licensed dietitian nutritionist
Stephanie Lauri, RD, CLEC, a pre- and postnatal dietician and member of the Perelel Panel
Trista Best, MPH, RD, LD, a registered dietitian