Baby Led Weaning (also known as Baby Led Feeding) has started gaining prominence in the last 15 or so years, but one could argue the ideas pre-date conventional or “traditional” weaning (spoon-feeding babies purees starting in the 4-6 month range).
The main idea is that babies first introduction to food-aside from breastmilk or formula-is a wide range of solid foods (not purees-with the exception of “natural” purees, such as yogurt or applesauce), especially ones that are a part of meals you are eating as a family, and you simply give them the foods (cut appropriately and excluding any choking hazards such as nuts, popcorn, etc.) and let them choose what and how much to eat.
Eating meals together as a family is a big part of this: the babies learn from watching the adults (and older kids) eat the foods and it creates a really healthy dynamic of family mealtimes. Letting them feed themselves helps developmentally (lots of fine motor skills!) as well as with their future relationship with food: knowing to listen to their bodies and eat when they’re hungry and stop when they are not. As they get older this can also help mitigate any issues with food aversions they would potentially develop as a result of being forced to eat something they may not want and then creating a negative association. Being exposed to a bunch of different textures and flavors (from a variety of foods, preparations, spices, etc.) from the onset of feeding can also really help with developing a more diverse and adventurous palate. And then, of course, there is a big difference: solid, “table”, food vs. purees. Starting out with foods of lots of different textures and sizes helps the baby learn how to chew first, as opposed to beginning with foods that they just swallow. They can learn how big of bites they’re able to handle, how to chew them correctly, how all of these different foods feel, and can be navigated safely. This can also aid in the development of their jaw and mouth muscles and alignment. The idea can seem daunting (especially if it’s not something you’ve been exposed to) and even scary but a recent study by the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) found no higher risk of choking with the Baby Led Weaning method than with conventional feeding (and there may be a chance that the risk of choking decreases as children get older thanks to the skills they learned when starting out). If you’re concerned about your baby not having teeth, I promise you don’t need to be. Baby gums are crazy strong and some children don’t even get teeth until after they’re 1 (and even then it’s usually the cutting teeth that emerge first. The teeth mainly used for chewing, molars, are usually the last teeth to come in)-so even traditionally weaned babies frequently start eating table food before they have any teeth.
So how do you start? First, I highly recommend reading the book by Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett to gain a really good foundation on the principles and methodology. You can also check out the Facebook group Baby Led Weaning for Beginners and Beyond for a helpful community source with a ton of resources to read over and learn from.
Next-and I’d suggest this for anyone starting feeding of any kind with a child become familiar with infant CPR. It’s a really helpful safety step and should hopefully empower you and make you feel a litter safer (remember, though, that people can technically choke on anything at anytime-purees, soft food, or more solid foods so it’s best all-around to be prepared!) Baby Led Weaning can get messy (kids feeding themselves also means sometimes food ends up…not in their mouths) so I also recommend finding a high chair and bibs that are easy to clean (they even make long sleeve bibs). Finding utensils for your little one to learn with, and any bowls or plates you may need is also a good idea (repeat after me: suction bottoms). Once you’re fully educated on what you’re doing and have all the necessary tools you just need to make sure one more thing is ready: your baby!
For Baby Led Weaning you want them to be at least 6 months old AND able to sit unassisted for at least one full minute. Them being able to sit means that they have the core strength they need to be able to gag effectively and keep themselves from choking. Gagging is a big part of early feeding and, although it can look scary and some people may even think they’re choking, it’s actually a good thing that is helping prevent your baby from choking! When babies are younger their gag reflex is farther up, more towards the middle of their mouth than in the back, which is just an extra fail-safe against choking. The more your baby practices with eating and gets used to different textures and chewing (and the older they get) the less they’ll gag! In my experience, it usually passes fairly quickly. It’s pretty astounding to see how fast these little people learn and how competent they are!
And that’s essentially what you need to know! I have really enjoyed Baby Led Weaning and I think there are a ton of benefits. But however you choose to feed your baby is absolutely fine! Additionally, some children may have certain circumstances that would make this method of feeding not viable, so always make sure to do your research and potentially discuss with your doctor before making any decisions. If you’re interested in trying Baby Led Weaning out then do your reading, make sure you know how to do it safely and correctly, and enjoy! It’s so much fun to introduce the joy of eating and share the experience with your sweet little love.