Baby-Led Weaning: What You Need to Know
Ready to introduce your baby to food? Curious to learn about baby-led weaning but you don’t know how it works? Here are some tips to get you started.
Baby-led weaning is a fun and empowering way for babies to experience the world of food. It is a process of discovery, learning and intuition for both mom and baby. As the name implies, the baby leads the way to when she or he is ready to wean off of milk as a primary source of nutrition and calories, and onto food.
Baby-led weaning is a very different approach to the conventional way of starting your baby on a measured amount of cereal. In baby-led weaning there is no measuring, no specific order to introducing types of foods, and no purees or mush.
This method will NOT be for every family. Although I prefer this method and believe there are a number of long-term benefits compared to spoon-feeding purees, it won’t necessarily make your child any healthier, smarter or better than any other baby!
There is, however, a solid argument to be made that starting your baby on cereal is a bad idea, as it could lead to digestive issues and grain allergies later in life. Cereal grains require a specific enzyme called amylase to be broken down, babies only produce very small amounts of amylase. What they have lots of, however, is the enzyme lactase, the enzyme necessary to digest the proteins in milk.
What are the long-term benefits to baby-led weaning? I don’t have a scientific study to support my theories, but in my observations of babies who led the way compared to those babies whose parents led the way, I have noticed a few things.
Baby-led weaning seems to result in:
- more likely to become an adventurous eater throughout childhood
- less likely to over-eat
- higher tolerance for textures and flavors
Another, more practical benefit to baby-led weaning is you never have to make separate meals for your child. Our babies usually ate off of our plates and we simply modified recipes to limit salt and spicy pepper.
When is the right time to introduce your baby to foods? I followed these guidelines:
1) Baby should be able to sit up-right, on their own, without needing support
2) Baby should be able to easily grasp objects in their hands and move them with control to their mouths
3) Baby should show interest in food.
4) Baby should have a couple of teeth!
When you begin introducing your baby to food, it’s best they are NOT hungry. They will not be getting any significant amount of food from the beginning. This is a practice in learning how to eat, developing naturally reflexes and discovering taste and texture.
My babies usually sat on my lap when eating, as I found it was easier for me to observe whether there was any difficulty in swallowing. Placing them in a high chair could potentially make it hard for you to quickly intervene, should you need to, if they are buckled in and have a tray over their lap. With foods that were really messy and mushy, like oatmeal (soaked overnight of course to begin the breakdown of carbohydrates) or mashed potatoes, mashed bananas and avocados.
Which brings us to the big question on everyone’s mind; what foods should you begin with?
Babies historically were not eating food as a primary source of calories and nutrients until they were almost 12 months old. Which makes sense when we consider how many teeth a 6 month old has compared to a 1 year old! The advice of the Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF) is to wait until your baby is 10 months old before introducing solid foods, with the exception of starting them on egg yolks around 4 or 5 months of age.
I began feeding my babies egg yolks at almost 6 months of age because they really could not sit upright without support until then.
!!Caution: only feed the yolk, not the white!! The yolk is primarily composed of fat, cholesterol, and amino acids. The white is almost entirely difficult-to digest proteins that should not be introduced until 1 year of age.
Mother’s milk is about 50% saturated fat which is essential to brain growth and neurological development, adding egg yolks increases these brain-building nutrients.
Please source quality eggs that are raised on pasture so that the nutrient profile of the egg is optimized! We have an abundance of quality eggs in the Hudson Valley, so this shouldn’t be an issue.
Whether you begin with the egg or not, it may seem like mushy foods are the best starting point, but I found barely steamed broccoli to be the best entry food. They really can’t get much off the floret, but they can grasp them easily, suck the juices and play with the ends.
I introduced bananas and avocados very early on, but I quickly discovered they are both super slippery once they start mixing with baby’s saliva and I found that large chunks stuck easily in the back of the throat. I mashed those two fruits in particular for a while before giving them whole or in large pieces.
If you want to go with softer veggies like roasted sweet potato, yam, carrots, squash, etc., make sure to cut them into long sticks that they can pick up on their own. Mashed veggies are great because they are easy to swallow, but cover yourself in a towel, call the dog for floor clean-up and get ready for a holy mess!
Baby’s livers are immature so if you are feeding your baby lots of orange veggies that are loaded with carotenoids and they start developing an orange or yellow hue to their skin, it’s a sign they are not converting the carotenoids to Vitamin A and their liver is unable to handle the amount.
A note of caution: babies have a very strong gag reflex and gag A LOT with baby-led weaning, many foods will be spit back up in the beginning. It can be scary at first, but you will discover their body is capable of dislodging food that may obstruct the trachea. We want to allow this process and not intervene unless necessary as this is how they develop a strong reflex to PREVENT choking, as well as teaching them how to chew their food properly. You will observe all manner of funny faces and interesting tongue movements as they learn how to eat.
It’s really important in the beginning weeks and months that the parent is fully present while your baby is eating. You need to observe for signs of choking and be prepared to help dis-lodge anything that gets stuck. It may sound scary, but it is actually quite intuitive if your baby needs help YOU WILL KNOW!
There were only time a couple of times I had to intervene in the hundreds of meals my girls ate. When my oldest daughter had already been eating for a number of months, she took a giant bite of my apple and got more than she could chew. I had to do a back-blow; hence I recommend avoiding apples!
The other scary food was asparagus. They seems like a great option because of their shape, but they have long stringy fibers. My daughter got it stuck and I had to get my fingers in her mouth and pull it out. I also found lettuce and almost all cooked greens like kale, chard, collards etc. to be difficult for them to chew appropriately. I never had to intervene but there was more difficulty swallowing than I was comfortable with so I just avoided those until they had a mouth full of teeth.
Meats are excellent foods nutritionally to begin with. Unless you are going to pre-chew the meat for your baby, ground beef and chicken legs are good entry points. The advantage to meat on a bone is that early on, they can suck the juices off but they really can’t get the meat off. Meat packs the most nutrition right out of the gate and is a significant source of fat, which is what baby needs to grow. At my daughter’s first Christmas (she was 8 months old) she sucked the juices off the prime rib bones and since that day, steak is one of her favorite foods.
The conventional wisdom to avoid introducing too many foods too quickly is still a good idea. We still want to be watching for food allergies and sensitivities. Introduce new foods every couple of days. When you start your baby on whole grains, it’s a good idea to soak them overnight. Whether it’s oats, quinoa, rice or farrow, you want to aid their ability to break down the carbohydrates in the grains which they have limited amount of enzymes to do on their own.
Avoid any foods that are processed and packaged for as long as possible. I introduced my babies to butter very early on and put it on almost everything I could. Again, mother’s milk is 50% saturated fat and veggies are devoid of this essential nutrient, so adding fat to the baby’s diet is important. I also cooked grains in homemade bone broth for increase protein and fats. Making bone broth yourself is somewhat necessary as the sodium content of even the best brands (like Kettle and Fire) will be difficult to regulate.
A world about salt: salt is a beneficial source of essential micro-nutrients and minerals for babies. I only recommend Celtic gray sea salt and Himalayan pink salt for anyone, babies and grown-ups alike. Avoid iodized salt and kosher salt as your primary sources of sodium as they are highly processed, adulterated and the mineral content has essentially been destroyed. A small pinch of salt on your baby’s food will provide them with essential nutrients. Large amounts of sodium chloride (the primary compound in salt) is dangerous for baby, so be mindful of this.
Sugar in all of its forms. Mother’s milk is very sweet and we are all hard-wired for the sweet flavor because of the survival advantage it conferred evolutionarily. Mother’s milk is also half fat, as I mentioned before. This carbohydrate to fat ratio regulates the rise in blood-sugar levels for baby. This is important to remember when you think about how feeding your baby foods high in sugar (any fruits and grains) need to be balanced with adequate protein and fat sources. This will prevent her/him from developing blood-sugar imbalances throughout her life and support appropriate hormone responses, such as insulin and leptin. Avoid juices! They are like main-lining sugar! Also, avoid dependency on crackers and cereals for snacks as they have the same effect on blood sugar levels.
Want to learn more? You can find me at https://kristinmisik.com/ or email your questions to Kristin@KristinMisik.com. Located in New Paltz, I am an acupuncturist, nutritionist and mother of two healthy, happy girls.
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