Baby-led weaning is the process of allowing a baby to feed themselves during as they transition away from the bottle. Not only can it make the transition simpler for parents—less fussing over unwanted foods and less guesswork on when the baby is full— but it can also offer a whole host of other benefits. Baby-led weaning helps to refine fine motor skills, improves jaw development, and raises the quality of available food choices for everyone at the table.
Although it might sound counter-intuitive to allow a baby to dictate what they want to eat and when it actually makes a lot of sense developmentally. “It’s all based on how babies naturally develop,” says Tracey Murkett, co-author of Baby-Led Weaning. “It’s their instinct to explore food.”
It works like this: parents make healthy food available, and the baby chooses what to eat and when. If they don’t want to eat anything at all, they don’t eat anything at all. If they find something they like, they eat until they are full. “It’s about allowing them to eat to their appetite,” offers Murkett. “Their milk feeds continue, and because you’re not making them eat more than they need, they have a more gradual transition” to solid foods.
One of the benefits of baby-led weaning is that it makes for a more relaxed mealtime for everyone involved. “You avoid all those mealtime battles because the baby or toddler isn’t under any pressure to eat a certain amount,” Murkett explains. “They just get on with it, you’re not persuading them to eat more of a certain thing, so there’s nothing to battle over.”
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Tips for Baby-Led Weaning
- Provide large, finger-shaped foods or strips. Younger babies need enough of the morsel to poke out of their fist so they can get their mouth around it.
- Offer everything on the table. Babies can enjoy pretty much everything you eat, from tender meats to spicy curries.
- Be patient. It can take several weeks for babies just to figure out how to hold food before they even taste it, but they will eventually at their own pace.
- Ditch the extra salt, sugar, and junk food … for everyone. When you choose the same healthy options that the baby does, everyone wins.
- Show them the ropes. Let them copy you and join in with family mealtimes.
The hands-off approach of baby-led weaning can also lead to a healthier adulthood. “Research shows that they are making healthier food choices,” Murkett says. “This could be because parents don’t use sweet foods as a bribe.”
Allowing a baby open season at the dinner table can have positive effects on everyone else’s diet too. If the baby is eating what everyone else is eating, Murkett notes, many parents ditch junk food altogether. Families as a whole tend to improve their diet because what you’re eating the baby is eating too.
According to Murkett, baby-led weaning is particularly popular with orthodontists. “Babies don’t need pureed food at six months,” she says. “They’re ready to chew and start using their mouths, and it allows them to start doing that in their own pace.”
There hasn’t been much clinical research on whether baby-led weaning has any direct effect on motor skills, but parents who follow the process do seem to notice a difference. And parents using the baby-led weaning approach should avoid let babies do the work themselves. Supplementing mealtimes with spoonfeeding overrides their natural appetite. Adding extra food on top of what the baby has already eaten defeats the purpose of allowing them their own space to explore
“The problem with supplementing you’re then telling the baby that you don’t trust their appetite,” Murkett says. “It’s not baby-led, they end up eating more than they need, and they then start cutting back on milk … and you end up replacing really valuable milk feeds with mashed up carrot, which in terms of calories and nutrients there’s no comparison.”
Parents should also be aware that eating habits are formed at a young age, and overfeeding at this stage of development can set a long-term precedent, according to Murkett. “Persuading a child to eat more at mealtimes than they need at every meal is going to have a massive impact on their eating habits over a lifetime.”