Baby-led Weaning 101

Let me tell you about one of my favorite things we’ve done with Sander: baby-led weaning. If you’re unfamiliar with this, the basic idea is that instead of buying pureed, jarred baby foods (or making your own), you let your baby feed himself table foods from the start.

Why We Love It

This was enormously appealing to me. Living in China, we don’t have access to those handy jars of baby food. And I spend enough time here trying to get food on the table – I had zero desire to be making baby food myself.

Also, I really love eating. I didn’t relish the idea of spoon-feeding my baby while my own food was getting cold.

Enter baby-led weaning. I don’t remember where I first came across it, but the more I researched about it, the more sense it made to me.  The family eats together and no one’s food has to get cold (yay for mom getting to eat a hot meal!). The baby learns to eat on their own, meaning they learn how to first chew then swallow (as opposed to introducing purees first where they learn to swallow and then months later introduce chewing), and they learn to regulate how much they are eating – they’ll stop when they’re full instead of having mom or dad continue to feed them with a spoon. The baby eats a variety of food, right from the get-go – they’re experiencing textures and tastes and flavor combinations you just don’t get with the purees. In fact, one of the mottos I’ve heard for baby-led weaning is “food before one is just for fun” – meaning what we’re really going for here is just teaching the baby how to eat and how to enjoy food and have a positive relationship with it. That was exactly what I was aiming for.

baby-led weaning

Getting Started with Baby-led Weaning

You can start a baby on this method as soon as they are able to sit up on their own – for us, that was a little bit after Sander was 6 months old. When they’re just starting, you want to give them big chunks of food that they can hold in their fist. I know this feels counter-intuitive, because your gut probably tells you to give them something tiny first. But if it’s something bigger, say about the size of a potato wedge or so, the baby can hold it in their fist, bring it to their mouth, and bite off (or just use their cute little gums to bite off) a piece that’s a size their mouth is able to handle. Then you want to be sure the food you’re giving them is soft enough to squish between your thumb and pointer finger. That way they’re able to “chew” it with their gums, even if they haven’t got teeth yet.

The very first thing we gave Sander to eat was a half a banana, split down the middle into four pieces or so. It took him a while to even get it to his mouth. Once he did, the second the banana touched his tongue, he threw up. ? We were cracking up. We’d read this could happen (although we didn’t think it would be so quick), and let me tell you the why behind that. According to the baby-led weaning website, a baby’s gag reflex is much further forward in their mouth than it is in an adult. You and I gag when something touches the back of our throat in a way our body doesn’t think it can handle. A baby gags when something touches the middle of their tongue their body doesn’t think it can handle.

This is a built-in safety mechanism, to make sure no food that’s the wrong size gets any further back than the middle of their tongue. Because of this, there is a lot of gagging involved with baby-led weaning, which makes it extra important you understand the difference between gagging and choking. Gagging is when the baby is coughing and sputtering in order to move the food around in their mouth so they can chew it up smaller before trying to swallow. Choking is when the food is lodged in their airway and they’re unable to breathe. Gagging is noisy. Choking is silent.

(That said, obviously study up on this on your own before trying it yourself. I made sure Terry and I both knew what choking looked like, and how to perform infant Heimlich and CPR. So far we haven’t had any trouble with it at all. It’s scary the first few times to hear him gag, but I could still see the piece of food on his tongue, so I knew it wasn’t in his airway. He’d cough and gag for about three seconds and then just be right back to chewing, totally unbothered.)

The first time food ever touched his tongue, Sander gagged so hard he threw up. We cleaned it up quick and give him the banana again. It went better the second time, although he still made the best repulsed faces every time it entered his mouth. It took several days before he actually bit off any piece of food, and at least a week before he actually swallowed any. We weren’t in any hurry though, and I was happy to let him explore at his own pace (especially since I could be eating my own food while he ate his).

baby-led weaning

We just put the food directly on his tray, and let him have at it. As he’s gotten older and more skilled with eating and picking things up, we’ve started cut up his food into tiny pieces. We mostly try to feed him what the family is eating, although for us we found that at the beginning it was easiest to just feed him steamed vegetables that were easy for him to grip. We gave him a lot of steamed carrot sticks or steamed apple slices (sometimes with cinnamon or nutmeg). As he got the hang of chewing and swallowing and picking things up, we’ve moved on to (mostly) normal meals, softened and cut up as needed. He’s had deconstructed tacos, lentils and beans, quesadillas, grilled cheese sandwiches, bread, scrambled egg, peanut butter on bread, waffle, spiced pumpkin (which is his absolute favorite), stir-fried curry, chili, cornbread, yogurt, zucchini, avocado, broccoli, bananas, carrots, apples, cantaloupe, and watermelon, among other things.

We started off with just one meal a day, so it wouldn’t be overwhelming. I’d nurse him first so he wouldn’t be starving and frustrated and angry (his mama gets “hangry” easily if ya know what I mean), and then we’d move right into the meal. Then we bumped it up to two meals after a few months, and we’re just moving into three meals right about now (he’s 10 months old).

Overall, we’ve really loved  this method of feeding him, and plan to repeat it with any of his future siblings. The only downsides I can think of is that it can be pretty messy, and a lot of food ends up wasted on the floor at the beginning (although “a lot” is kind of relative, I guess – when you’re starting off with three slices of apple, how much of that is “a lot?”).

If you’re wanting to do baby-led weaning, I’d recommend checking out their website. There’s a book about it too – I haven’t read it, but from what I’ve seen online, it sounds like most of the book is covered pretty thoroughly on the website and in blogs, so you may decide you don’t actually need to read it.