What is baby-led weaning?
Choosing a weaning style to suit you and your baby can feel daunting, with everyone seemingly having an opinion. Registered dietitian and leading child nutritionist Frankie Phillips outlines what baby-led weaning means.
Your baby’s first foray into solid food opens up a whole world of flavours and texture. But how do you decide what your baby’s first taste should be? Do you offer it to them on a spoon or fingertip, or do they just pick it up with their tiny hands?
Thankfully, we’ve moved on from putting rusks in the bottle with milk, but choosing whether to opt for traditional or baby-led weaning still sparks debate.
Looking for inspiration? Try our weaning recipe collection, packed full of perfect purées and tasty finger foods. Not sure if your baby is ready for weaning? Find out how to spot the signs. Be prepared for feeding by reading our review of the best high chairs for babies and toddlers.
What is baby-led weaning?
The term baby-led weaning refers to the relaxed and unstructured approach of offering your baby only solid finger foods and learning to feed themselves from the very start of weaning, with no help from you or another adult. This skips the step of food being spoon fed in a mashed or puréed form, and instead it is usually offered in soft pieces held in the hand. The phrase 'baby-led weaning' was coined around 2003 by healthy writer Dr Gill Rapley, who has written extensively on the topic.
How do I initiate baby-led weaning?
Manageable chunks of different family foods are put onto your baby’s plate or a tray, your baby can then feed him or herself how and what they want.
Some research suggests this is a useful way of enabling babies to regulate their own food intake. This ‘responsive feeding’ might also improve eating patterns, because it relies on your baby’s innate ability to respond to cues for hunger and satiety, in a similar way to on-demand milk feeding. This may help with self-regulation of food intake and lead to healthier weight gain.
Why is baby-led weaning sometimes criticised?
According to some research, babies who follow the baby-led weaning approach are more likely to be underweight and may be at increased risk of nutrient shortfalls such as iron deficiency because baby’s don’t typically eat iron-rich breakfast cereals or red meat until later in the weaning process.
What does traditional weaning involve?
Your baby is offered a taste of food on the tip of a spoon, or on a fingertip. The first foods tend to be cereal, like baby rice mixed with their usual milk, or a fruit or vegetable purée. These mashed or puréed foods can be single foods, such as parsnip purée, or a combination such as mashed banana and mango. Some research has shown that it’s important to ensure your baby gets the real taste of food, even those that are bitter, so it’s best not to ‘disguise’ flavours (for example, mixing apple purée into broccoli).
This approach is more clearly controlled by the adult and has the advantage of including a wide range of foods.
A bit of both?
The middle ground is what seems to be favoured by many, and is the advice given by the Department of Health with spoon feeding alongside self-feeding offering an opportunity to grab and chew on foods like avocado, banana or mini rice cakes.
Whatever method you choose, weaning is a gradual process. Small pieces of soft food and one or two spoonfuls might be all your baby wants, and milk feeds remain important to provide the main source of nutrition. That’s why this stage is called 'complementary feeding' because it offers the opportunity to add variety to help lay the foundations for a healthy, balanced diet.
This page was last updated in 19 January 2023.
Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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