Choosing a weaning style to suit you and your baby can feel daunting, and everyone seems to have an opinion. Registered dietitian and leading child nutritionist Frankie Phillips explains what baby-led weaning really means...
Your baby’s first forays into solid food open up a whole new 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 little spoon or your fingertip, or do they just pick it up in their tiny hand and independently start to move it towards their mouth?
Thankfully, we’ve moved on from putting rusk in the bottle with milk, but choosing whether to opt for traditional or baby-led weaning still sparks heated debate among parents and health visitors.
What is baby-led weaning?
The term baby-led weaning was coined around 2003 by health visitor Gill Rapley. This relaxed and unstructured approach is based on baby being offered solid foods for him to feed himself, with no help from an adult. The foods would usually be soft pieces held in the hand, rather than being offered on a spoon. Essentially, manageable chunks of different family foods are put onto baby’s plate or a tray, baby can then feed herself how and what she wants.
Some research has found that this approach is a good way of enabling babies to regulate their own food intake. Such so-called ‘responsive feeding’ might also help to improve eating patterns, relying on baby’s inate ability to respond to cues for hunger and satiety, in a similar way to on-demand milk feeding. This helps with self-regulation of food intake and healthier weight gain.
There have been some concerns about the nutritional adequacy of baby-led weaning, and some studies have suggested that growth may be affected adversely. Also, 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 iron deficiency as they don’t usually eat breakfast cereals or red meat until later; these are rich in iron.
In traditional weaning approaches, baby is offered a first taste of food on the tip of a spoon, or on a fingertip. The first foods tend to be cereal, such as baby rice mixed with his usual milk, or 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 baby gets the real taste of food, even those that are bitter, and so it’s best to try not to ‘disguise’ flavours (for example, mixing apple purée into broccoli). Even if he turns his nose up at the first taste of a bitter vegetable, don’t give up – keep trying every few days and he’ll soon have plenty of foods in his repertoire.
This approach is more clearly controlled by the adult giving the food and has the advantage of being able to offer a wide range of foods as most foods can be puréed or mashed.
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 with finger foods offering an opportunity to grab and chew on foods such as ripe, soft avocado, banana or mini rice cakes.
Whether you choose baby-led weaning, traditional methods, or a combination of the two, it's meant to be a gradual process. Small pieces of soft food and one or two spoonfuls might be all your baby wants at first, and milk feeds are still really important to provide the main source of nutrition until baby is confidently eating a good range of family foods in sufficient amounts – typically by his first birthday. That’s why it’s called 'complementary feeding'.