What is baby-led weaning and when is the best time to start?

·7-min read
Baby weaning with healthy food
Interested in baby-led weaning? Experts recommend starting with foods like butternut squash, banana, avocado, chicken, broccoli, scrambled egg, apple, sweet potato, oatmeal, carrot, pasta, cantaloupe, salmon and watermelon. (Photo: Getty Creative)

When it's time to toss away the bottles and breastfeeding is a thing of the past, parents typically turn to pre-made baby food purees to lead their little ones into the next stage of their journey with food.

However, some say baby-led weaning offers a different option for introducing solid food: teaching kids early on to build a positive relationship with a variety of foods, making mealtimes easy for the whole family and giving babies nutrients they might otherwise be lacking.

What is baby-led weaning?

"In simplest terms, baby-led weaning is letting your baby set the pace during the introduction of solids," says Krystyn Parks, a pediatric dietitian who successfully utilized baby-led weaning with her own two children. "After all, babies self-feed from the very beginning."

With baby-led weaning, babies are introduced slowly over time to different solid non-pureed foods as they make a self-led transition from a liquid diet of breastmilk or formula.

According to Parks, the method encourages a responsive feeding approach, one in which parents pay attention to the baby's cues — like showing curiosity about new foods or distress when full — and let them determine how much they want to eat.

"Babies are naturally very intuitive eaters," she says. "They eat when they're hungry and stop when they're full."

"If parents encourage babies to consistently eat past fullness, which can easily happen when the parent leads the way with solids," Parks adds, "babies start to rely on external factors to determine how much to eat, instead of their own hunger and satiety cues."

Parks says this can lead to problems later on in life such as over or under eating, and adds that research also shows children who do not progress past purees by 9 months of age tend to be pickier eaters.

"With baby-led weaning," Parks explains, "babies are started on finger foods right from the start so [when to transition from purees to solids] does not become an issue."

When should you start baby-led weaning?

Ali Wolf, a former broadcast journalist and host of the Mom's Calling Podcast, knows firsthand that baby-led weaning can sound overwhelming at first. When the Nashville, Tenn. mom was given the greenlight by her pediatrician to introduce solid foods to her then 4-month-old daughter, Valerie, she says she began creating her own path into baby-led weaning, with a few non-traditional stops along the way.

"Baby-led weaning can feel intimidating and slightly restrictive," says Wolf of her experience. "As a first-time parent, I felt I had to pick one approach and stick to it. Instead, I found the feeding process to be a constant evolution, experiment and learning experience for both my baby and myself."

Wolf says although she was exclusively breastfeeding Valerie at the time, she was eager to begin "playing around" with solid foods during family meals in the evenings.

"Instead of going straight into baby-led weaning, I started by spoon-feeding Valerie oatmeal, fruits and veggies mixed with pumped breast milk," she recalls. "By the time she was 9 or 10 months old, we advanced to strips or chunks of food baby-led weaning-style. This approach worked great for us and once we started baby-led weaning, mealtime felt easier and more fun."

Baby-led weaning led to both short-term and long-term success for Wolf's now 14-month-old daughter.

"In the short term, Valerie actually consumed more food once we let her feed herself," Wolf says. "She had the freedom to explore the healthy options presented to her."

"Long-term, I believe [baby-led weaning] teaches independence and exploration," she adds. "I also felt more inspired to get creative with new healthy recipes for all of us to enjoy together. I want mealtime to be a joyful relaxing experience for my family and baby-led weaning helps reinforce that."

Ana Munoz, a doula and owner of Morris Prenatal Massage, is mom to a 1-year-old daughter, Lana, with whom she tried baby-led weaning.

"It's been the easiest decision we've made for our daughter," says Munoz.

Munoz says her occupation often keeps her apart from Lana for long periods of time: Once her stock of breast milk ran out and Lana began refusing bottles of any kind, baby-led weaning seemed like the perfect fit for her family.

"She transitioned from breastfeeding straight to solid pieces of food," the Boonton, N.J. mom shares. "Her mouth had to learn a whole new way of processing food."

The first few tries were a learning process: Lana would make small gagging noises as she learned how to move the food around in her mouth. But with some patience and a bit of time, Munoz says it became second nature for Lana to feed herself foods like bananas, blueberries, chicken and steak — under the close watch of her parents.

According to Munoz, by 12 months of age, Lana was able to enjoy a wide variety of solid foods from fruits and vegetables to meats. Along with nutritional benefits that were valuable to Munoz and her family, the busy mom reports Lana's new skills make mealtime much easier.

"There's no need to worry that I forgot to pack her food," she says. "She can eat anywhere and anything."

How to start baby-led weaning?

Since every child is different, it's important to recognize signs that a baby is ready before taking that first step into baby-led weaning.

Molli Fowler, a registered dietitian from Salt Lake City, Utah shares information about baby-led weaning on her Instagram page, @babiesfeedingbabies.

Fowler's tips on how to know when your baby is prepared to take the exciting step to try solid foods?

First, your baby should be about 6 months in age and able to sit up with little assistance. Additionally, the baby should be naturally interested in foods and attempting to put objects into their mouth. Another sign to look out for comes from the tongue — baby's thrust reflex, which helps them latch onto a nipple, should be beginning to disappear.

Fowler also shares an expertly crafted list of foods that make getting started on this new journey simple: butternut squash, banana, avocado, chicken, broccoli, scrambled egg, apple, sweet potato, oatmeal, carrot, pasta, cantaloupe, salmon and watermelon, she says, are a great place to begin.

Even with those tips in mind, Fowler knows baby-led weaning can seem confusing at the start.

"When I had my daughter in 2019, I knew I wanted to take a baby-led weaning approach to starting solids, but it was confusing and overwhelming," she shares. "I couldn’t find any resources that were simple, affordable and based on scientific research, so I began to create it myself."

Monica Phillips felt the same way, so she founded Little Chompions, an organization focused on helping parents feel supported in starting the food journey with their babies through kits that include booklets and tools for both spoon-feeding and baby-led weaning.

As a pediatric speech therapist with an expertise in feeding therapy, Phillips, who lives in Washington, D.C., helps babies and children based on their oral muscles and motor skills. Phillips, who has two children of her own, offers her own insight on success with baby-led weaning.

"Meet children where they are," she says, "If your baby is not ready for it, don't just jump in. The most important thing is to look at your baby's signs and go from there, and always modify as needed for your baby."

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