If you've decided on a self-feeding approach, or baby led weaning, for starting solids with your baby, you may be wondering how to begin. Start with confidence with these dietitian-approved tips for starting baby led weaning and suggestions for baby's first foods.
So you've decided baby led weaning is right for you. Great! If you're a first time parent, you may be confused about how to begin, or even scared to start. That's completely normal! It can be especially confusing if your pediatrician isn't on board with BLW, because they'll typically give you zero guidance and advise you to go the traditional route of feeding purees, and give you the protocol for that. But don't worry! I'm here to guide you through beginning baby led weaning.
When To Start Baby Led Weaning
Most pediatricians recommend introducing solid foods to baby at 4-6 months of age, while continuing to give breastmilk or formula until at least 1 year of age. The AAP has shifted more toward 6 months for all babies, regardless of method. With baby led weaning, introduction might occur at 6 months or later, as baby needs to show signs of readiness before you introduce solids, such as:
- Sitting up unassisted with good head control
- Grabbing and holding on to objects
- Dropping the tongue thrust reflex
Babies who are able to bring objects to their mouths and show interest in the food on your plate are most likely ready. Children with special needs may take longer to show signs of readiness, but be patient, they'll show you when they're ready.
How To Start Baby Led Weaning
Once your baby shows signs of readiness, just start! Jump right in by offering baby an appropriate food.
- Before offering food, make sure baby is not too hungry or tired. You should nurse or bottle feed at her normal time so she is fed and doesn't get too frustrated or fussy.
- Set baby in her high chair (I like to include baby at a family mealtime rather than feeding her by herself so she can observe and participate). You can remove baby's clothes if you'd like, or put on a baby smock or bib. (See more of my favorite product picks to make BLW easier here.)
- Place a piece of appropriately textured food on baby's tray (more details on that below), and let her explore! If she has trouble picking it up off the tray at first, you can try holding it out for her to reach for and take from you. Don't put food in baby's mouth, as that can be a choking hazard.
- That's it! You've begun! You can start with 1-2 'meals' per day while baby practices (and you get used to cleaning up after every meal!) and gradually increase to more meals and more foods offered as baby's skills and appetite increase.
First Foods For Baby Led Weaning
The first foods you offer your baby should be both texturally and nutritionally appropriate. You want foods that baby can mash with their gums. You can test this by placing the food between your thumb and forefinger and mashing it. The food should also be in a shape that baby can easily pick up. I recommend cutting pieces of food about the length and width of your pinky finger. Finally, babies should not be given food with added sugar, and salt should be very limited as their bodies can't yet process very much salt. I recommend you start with foods that are not common allergens, especially for high risk babies. Here are some common first foods that are safe for baby led weaning:
- Avocado (a slice with the skin on for easier gripping)
- Piece of steak, pork, or chicken (make sure it's cooked to proper temperature, but not too tough - you want baby to be able to suck the iron-rich juices from it)
- A big, soft strawberry (left whole for easier gripping)
- Piece of baked or roasted potato or sweet potato
- Noodle in a shape baby can grab, such as penne (I like bean-based pasta, such as Banza, for babies because it is higher in iron and protein)
- Soft finger-shaped meatball or patty
- Bean patty (homemade, as premade ones are very high in salt)
- Soft cooked apple or pear slice with skin removed
- Banana with some of the peel left on for easier gripping
- Soft cooked carrots cut into finger-sized pieces
After a day or two, you can start introducing foods that might be potential allergens (dairy, eggs, wheat, fish, nuts, etc.)
Potential allergens should be introduced as early as you start introducing foods to reduce risk of developing an allergy. If your baby is low-risk, I wouldn't stress about this too much, but if your baby is high-risk (severe eczema, first degree relative with a food allergy), then you should be more cautious. Stick to one allergen-containing food per day, and try not to feed it right before bed as a precaution. (More information on introducing allergens coming soon!) Here are a few ways to introduce common allergens and incorporate them into baby's diet:
- Finger shaped piece of scrambled egg, omelet, or hard-cooked egg
- Strip of whole wheat pancake or waffle (made with no added sugar)
- Piece of lightly toasted bread - once they are ok with wheat, you can use it as a vehicle for other potential allergens, like peanut butter or yogurt
- Whole milk Greek yogurt spread on bread or pancake (see above), given in a pre-loaded spoon, or spread on another food.
- Soft cooked piece of fish, such as salmon or baked whitefish
- Salmon patties
These foods are all really nutrient dense, so they're great to add to your baby's diet on a regular basis. Don't shy away! They're all part of our daily meals. In fully transparency, we jumped right in with a lot of these foods - I gave Little M a pancake and scrambled egg as her first meal. But you can absolutely start slower (and probably should) if you're concerned.
A Few Things To Know Before You Get Started With Baby Led Weaning
- Don't worry about how much actual food baby eats. At the beginning, baby led weaning is less about how much food is ingested and more about exploring and learning to eat. The majority of baby's nutrition will still be coming from breast milk or formula, so don't worry too much about the quantity of food, though there are things you need to be aware of when planning your baby's meals, such as offering iron-rich foods and limiting sugar and sodium.
- Gagging will happen. Before you get started, I recommend watching a video or two on the difference between choking and gagging to get a little more comfortable with gagging. Gagging is an essential reflex that baby will use when they can't swallow a particular food and is not dangerous, whereas choking is dangerous. Here is a great resource on choking vs gagging.
- It will be messy. Baby led weaning is messier than spoon feeding at the beginning, and that's okay! Baby is exploring and learning to use those tiny hands and mouth. Know that you will be cleaning up a lot of messes, but as your little one masters new skills, the mess will decrease. And honestly, I think the messiness lasts for a shorter period than spoon feeding because they develop eating skills more quickly with BLW.
Do you have questions about introducing solids to your little one? Drop them in the comments!