Baby lead Weaning

I’ll admit it, baby led weaning scared the crap out of me the first time I did it. I read a lot of articles on how to do it and which foods to serve. But I still wasn’t ready for the choking. Had I practiced the heimlich maneuver enough in CPR class? When do I call 911?

To be more accurate, I wasn’t ready for the gagging. Gagging and choking are two very different things. The former is pretty normal as a baby learns to eat, the latter is life threatening and definitely not something you want to experience when introducing foods to your baby. While the gagging was a little off-putting, there are excellent reasons why you should utilize baby led weaning when introducing first foods, and there are great strategies to minimize the gagging and maximize the joy and fun of first foods.

Before you begin

At about 4 months your baby might begin showing interest in the food you are eating. By 6 months your baby should be developmentally ready to begin solids. How do you know if your baby is ready? If your baby can sit up on her own with minimal support, she is showing interest in food and is ready to chew, and she has lost the tongue-thrust reflex and does not automatically push solid food out of her mouth with her tongue.

As you introduce solids it is very important that you are patient and go slow. My favourite saying is “food is fun until one“. Not only does it rhyme (which every saying should), but it is an easy reminder that your baby may not be an expert eater right away. We need to be patient, and allow our babies time to learn how to eat and to explore food at their pace.

Allergies are also a concern. We should introduce new foods slowly and one at a time. A new food can be introduced about every four days. This will give us an opportunity to observe how our baby reacts to a food. If an allergic reaction occurs we should easily be able to identify which food caused the problem and refrain from exposing our baby again.

Whether we have an enthusiastic eater, or an uninterested eater, breast milk should still be the primary source of nutrients for your baby in the first year, As your baby learns to eat how much they are consuming is questionable, and baby’s first foods are not always full of a variety of nutrients.

Benefits of baby led weaning

There are many benefits to baby led weaning, and one of the most important ones is that your baby will learn their own hunger cues. As your baby learns to feed themselves they also learn to eat when they are hungry and to stop eating when they are full. This knowledge will assist your child in developing good eating habits, maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding some eating disorders.

Some research, and lots of anecdotal stories from parents, has shown that baby led weaning can lead to babies being more accepting of new food and less picky. This is likely because right from the beginning the babies are exposed to a variety of textures and tastes. Your baby will experience some soft mushy fruits and vegetables, flat and tougher egg yolk, and maybe spongey chicken, among other foods that you are preparing for dinner.

Improved hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills is another benefit of baby led weaning. While feeding themselves babies have lots of practice exploring different shapes, sizes and texture of food. They learn how to grip the food and put it in their mouth. As their skills progress they also learn how to use silverware and cups more quickly.

Baby led weaning is also easier for mom and dad, and the baby is often incorporated into family meals faster. During baby led weaning the baby is often fed what the family is eating, maybe just cooked a little more so that it is softer. Mom and dad don’t have to make any extra baby meals. And baby can be fed at the same time as the family, allowing them to be part of family meals.

Another important benefit is the baby learns to chew then swallow. When a baby is only eating pureed food they are learning that they do not need to chew their food. This can make the transition to solid, chunkier food more challenging.

Learning to chew then swallow – expect some gagging

Baby led weaning happens slowly. When I started my son on solids we started at 6 months, and we are progressing slowly. He only eats one or two solid items a day, and my plan is to continue mostly breastfeeding until he has strong chewing and fine motor skills, which likely won’t be until about 10 months or so. Like any new skill, learning to eat takes time.

Babies learn the specific skills of eating in a set order: bring things to mouth, nawing and nibbling, chewing and purposeful swallowing. Baby lead weaning allows the baby the develop each skill on their own time, and at a safe pace. If we allow the baby to control this sequence, and do not rush them, the baby is unlikely to choke. Any food that they are unable to chew completely will most likely fall out of their mouth.

Gagging is very much likely to happen, primarily because a baby’s gag reflex is much more sensitive early on, and the trigger point is closer to the front. This gag reflex is important, as it helps keep baby safe from choking. As the baby develops the gag reflex becomes less sensitive, and it also moves farther back in the mouth, allowing the baby to have more gag-free meals.

As mentioned above, gagging is very different from choking. Gagging is normal, is very likely to occur, and can help the baby learn how to chew properly. It is rarely life threatening. With gagging, a baby can usually rectify the problem on their own. They gag a couple of times, then spit the food out. Choking, on the other hand, is very serious, not normal and could be life threatening. If your baby is choking they need immediate assistance.

How to do it

  1. Choose the food you want to feed your baby, ensuring it is age and skill appropriate. Initially you may not want to feed your baby the same food you are serving for dinner. It may not be appropriate in size or it may be to technically difficult for your baby to eat on their own.One of the best foods to start your baby on is egg yolk. Simply fry or boil it, cut it into manageable pieces and let your baby have it. Partially steamed apple slices works really well too.
  2. As your baby develops and become more skilled you can begin to feed him pieces of food from the dinner table. Choose items that are larger so the baby can grasp it easily, and ensure it is food your baby will be able to chew easily. Spaghetti is a great food, as is large chicken bone with some of the meat attached, braised meat, oven roasted vegetables and apple slices.
  3. Allow your baby to explore the food and eat at their own pace. Like I said “food is fun until one”. There is no pressure for your baby to eat a lot, or any of the food. Let them enjoy the experience and learn at their speed.
  4. Where you feed your baby isn’t important, but how you contain the mess is. Baby led weaning is messy! Your baby will squish her food and throw her food, and get it all over her face as she tries to hit the target. You will want to consider protecting your floor, his clothes and maybe the highchair too.