Module 7: Introduction to solid food (weaning)

In this module you will learn about the introduction of solid foods from 6-12 months. We will explore the guidelines for the introduction of solid foods and look at the methods of introduction as well as the issues they present. We will then look at how we can support parents in developing their child's relationship with food in a positive way.

The science of weaning

What do we mean by 'weaning'?

What do we mean by 'weaning'?

When we talk about weaning, we mean introducing our children to solid food. 

This is not about stopping or reducing any form of milk from children's diets as we are only covering from 6-12 months. It makes no difference which style of weaning you choose - infant milk should be the main source of nutrition for your baby until 12 months with supplementary solid food from the time they are developmentally ready to eat solid food at around 6 months. 

The introduction of solid foods before 12 months is not for nutritional purposes at this stage, but to allow babies to discover new tastes and experience food while still getting all the nutrition they need from their milk feeds. 

Gradually, babies will reduce their milk intake on their own as their ability to manage food grows.

When babies learn to eat, they have to learn absolutely everything - physical coordination, sensory experiences, cognitive understanding, and emotional aspects. It's been so long since we as adults learned how to eat, that we take for granted how much of a second nature it is to us. 

It makes sense that babies have a good few months to learn about and practise eating before they depend on solid food for nutrition. It is usual for babies to reach 9 or 10 months before they eat a significant amount and 12 months before a baby has learned and practised enough that they are able to tip the balance to put more emphasis on solid food than milk.

Please note that the WHO recommends that breastfeeding is continued to a minimum of 24 months alongside food from 6 months. Babies who are formula fed to 12 months can drink cow's milk safely from this time.

History of infant weaning

History of infant weaning

The history of infant weaning is covered in Gill Rapley's 'Baby-Led Weaning' (pg 26 - 29). 

For your own workshops, we recommend you make your own notes from this (but don't worry about going into huge amounts of detail - an overview is all that is needed). 

Changing guidelines

The chart below shows how the weaning age has changed from the 1900s to now. 

Guidelines have changed as our capacity for research and analysis, as well as technology, have changed and advanced. They will probably change in the future. 

However, that doesn't mean we should disregard current guidelines 'because guidelines have changed in the past and may change again'. Guidelines are based on the most current research which may conflict with and override previous research. Remember that as recently as when we were babies and toddlers, car seats weren't used. Now they are a legal requirement because our technology, research, and knowledge have moved on. You wouldn't dream of plonking your baby or toddler on the back seat with no car seat now - but that was normal in the 70s and 80s. 

Recent research

Recent research

BLW More Likely Amongst Breastfed Babies & Families of a Certain Demographic – Leads to Less Anxiety About Weaning  (Brown and Lee, 2011)

Six hundred and fifty five mothers with a child between 6 months and 12 months of age provided information about timing of weaning onset, use of spoon-feeding and purées, and experiences of weaning and meal times. Those participants who used a BLW method reported little use of spoon-feeding and purées and were more likely to have a higher education, higher occupation, be married and have breastfed their infant. BLW was associated with a later introduction of complementary foods, greater participation in meal times and exposure to family foods. Levels of anxiety about weaning and feeding were lower in mothers who adopted a BLW approach. These findings provide an insight into BLW practices and the characteristics of a small population of users.

Healthcare Professionals Lack BLW Knowledge (Cameron, Heath and Taylor, 2012)

Further work is needed to determine whether the concerns expressed by healthcare professionals and potential benefits outlined by mothers are valid. The current study suggests that there is a mismatch between healthcare professionals' and mothers' knowledge of, attitudes to and experiences, with BLW.

 Baby Led Weaning May Lead to More Positive Eating Styles in Later Life (Brown and Lee, 2011)

Mothers following a baby-led feeding style reported significantly lower levels of restriction, pressure to eat, monitoring and concern over child weight compared to mothers following a standard weaning response. No association was seen between weaning style and infant weight or perceived size. A baby-led weaning style was associated with a maternal feeding style which is low in control. This could potentially have a positive impact upon later child weight and eating style.

Baby Led Weaning = More Following Official Weaning Guidelines (Moore, Milligan and Goff, 2012)

This study conducted an online survey of UK parents. Eligible participants had weaned a child since the introduction of the current guidelines. Of 3607 participants, 86% accurately understood the guidelines. Eighty-seven per cent of health visitors were reported to have advised weaning at or around 6 months. Knowledge of the guidelines was associated with later weaning (independently of demographic factors) but did not ensure compliance.

80% of mothers who weaned before 24 weeks and 65% who weaned before 17 weeks were aware of the guidelines. Younger mothers, those receiving benefits, those educated only to 16 and minority ethnic groups had lower levels of awareness. Poor understanding of the guidelines was the most reliable predictor of early weaning together with young maternal age. Following the baby-led weaning approach was the most reliable predictor of those weaning at 26 weeks, together with the Internet being the most influential source of advice. Understanding of the current weaning guidelines is high and is a key independent predictor of weaning age in this population.

 Baby Led Weaning = Babies Pay More Attention to Their Own Satiety Which May Impact on Later Life (Brown and Lee, 2013)

Infants weaned using a baby-led approach were significantly more satiety-responsive and less likely to be overweight compared with those weaned using a standard approach. This was independent of breastfeeding duration, timing of introduction to complementary foods and maternal control. 

A baby-led weaning approach may encourage greater satiety-responsiveness and healthy weight-gain trajectories in infants.

Baby Led Weaning = Healthier Eating Habits Later in Life (Townsend and Pitchford, 2012)

Compared to the spoon-fed group, the baby-led group demonstrated significantly increased liking for carbohydrates compared to sweet foods for the spoon-fed group. Preference and exposure ratings were not influenced by socially desirable responding or socio-economic status, although an increased liking for vegetables was associated with higher social class. There was an increased incidence of underweight in the baby-led group and obesity in the spoon-fed group. No difference in picky eating was found between the two weaning groups. 

Weaning style impacts on food preferences and health in early childhood. Our results suggest that infants weaned through the baby-led approach learn to regulate their food intake in a manner, which leads to a lower BMI and a preference for healthy foods like carbohydrates. This has implications for combating the well-documented rise of obesity in contemporary societies.

Weaning readiness and guidelines

Current weaning recommendations

Current weaning recommendations

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the European Academy of Allergology and Clinical Immunology recommend avoiding solid food for at least the first four months of life. Many of these guidelines have been in place since 2004. 

In addition to this, the WHO and UNICEF recommend: 'exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life, and introduction of nutritionally-adequate and safe complementary (solid) foods at 6 months together with continued breastfeeding up to 2 years of age or beyond.' (http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs342/en/)

The NHS also recommend delaying solids until 26 weeks of age: ‘Introducing your baby to solid foods – sometimes called weaning or complementary feeding – should start when your baby is around six months old.’ (http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/pages/solid-foods-weaning.aspx)

The UK Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition also advise that: 'there is sufficient scientific evidence that exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months is nutritionally adequate'. However, they also recognise that early introduction of solid food is normal practice in the UK - but recommend that no solids should be introduced before 17 weeks of age (4 months). (https://www.bda.uk.com/publications/professional/complementary_feeding_weaning, page 3)

Marketing on baby milk substitutes (packaged purees)

Looking at the recommendations above, especially those from WHO and NHS, begs the question - why does baby food that is sold in the shops have an age of 4+ months on it?

The simple answer is money. 

In 1974, when the first official weaning guidelines of 4 months were issued, a law was passed so that baby milk substitutes could not be marketed to parents of babies under 4 months of age. 

When the guidelines were updated to 6 months, the law wasn't updated. There is an international voluntary code of conduct, but it is voluntary. 

Even those that we perceive to be the more 'ethical' brands have an age of 4+ months on their packaging. This is because if they used the recommended guideline age, they would be missing out on 2 months of the market - and we know from consumer behaviour that once someone becomes loyal to a brand, they are very unlikely to switch away from it.

It is also important to realise that baby food companies are very keen for the age to be kept low for one simple reason. Parents who wean their babies before 6 months need to use puree (something they are more unlikely to reproduce at home) whereas with the guideline at six months, normal household food can be introduced as a first food and therefore there is actually no "need" for pureed food or baby food in general.

Signs of readiness to wean

Signs of readiness to wean

It's important to realise that there is no magic switch that flicks over on the day a baby turns 6 months of age. 

Some babies will be ready sooner than others, and others later, which is why we should read the 6 month recommendation as 'around 6 months', which we would consider within a few weeks of that date, depending on the baby and their development using the following analysis.

True signs of readiness 

Parents  do not need a strict age at which they should wean their baby. Parents do need to be informed about the biology and research of readiness to wean and they do need to know what the true signs from their baby are that they are ready for solid food. These include:

  • loss of the tongue thrust reflex
  • sitting with little or no support
  • reaching out and grabbing things effectively (and being able to let them go)
  • taking objects to their mouth quickly and accurately
  • making gnawing and chewing movements

There are other physical developments that tie in with a baby's readiness to wean, but they're not externally visible. However, they are there at around 5 - 6 months of age. These include:

  • sufficient production of amylase to digest starchy foods
  • development of gag reflex

It's also important to consider a baby's general temperament at the time weaning is being considered.

A happy, calm and settled baby will accept changes - in this case, weaning - more readily, whereas a baby that is ill / teething / unsettled / fussy etc (for whatever reason) will not accept a change so readily (and might resist it).

False signs of readiness

There are many normal developmental stages / signs that are displayed by babies that have nothing to do with their readiness for solid food. Unfortunately many parents don't realise this and link these behaviours to a need for food. These can include:

  • waking at night 
  • fussy, unsettled behaviour
  • taking more milk
  • chewing on fists or putting things in their mouths; the reason for this is due to the amount of nerve endings in and around the mouth - and how babies explore objects. If I pick an object up in my hands, I learn a lot about it as there are plenty of nerve endings. But if I then put it to my mouth, I learn an awful lot more as there are more nerve endings.
  • showing an interest in other people eating; babies are interested in the world around them in general, especially what those close to them are doing. They're interested in watching you do the hoovering, but sadly that doesn't mean they're desperate to jump up and do it for you. Also,  if babies could speak, and we asked them where their food came from, they would say breasts or bottles. To them, food is milk. That's what stops them being hungry. When they watch us eating a banana, they don't connect that with hunger and food at all. It's just an interesting object that they'd also like to explore.

Development and readiness

Development and readiness

Maturation of digestive system - production of amylase

In the womb, babies' nutritional needs are fulfilled by glucose delivered via the placenta. 

Once babies are born, their milk diet consists of lactose, protein, and fat. It is very easy to digest and amylase doesn't need to be present. Hence at birth, amylase production is nil. Amylase production slowly increases over the first 5 / 6 months until levels are comparable with adult levels (for the size of the digestive system). 

Without sufficient amylase, babies’ digestive systems cannot convert starchy foods (eg rice, grains, vegetables) into energy – therefore nutrient absorption is poor (and if additional vitamins / iron etc are added, they're not absorbed either). It can also lead to digestive disturbances like diarrhoea, constipation and stomach cramps. 

Small stomach size - nutrients need to be concentrated

Babies’ stomachs are very small. They get full on a very small amount, so they need concentrated foods that are high in calories (and fat and protein), but low in volume. Milk is the best source of this until 9 - 12 months of age. 

Where milk is taken away and replaced with solid food earlier than this, babies miss out on nutrients. 

However, when babies are weaned by spoon-feeding, typically the calorific milk is removed and replaced with a food that is low in calories (as well as fat and protein). For example: 

  • breastmilk - 70 kcal / 100g
  • apple - 52 kcal / 100g
  • orange 45 kcal / 100g
  • carrot - 27 kcal / 100g

Even homemade baby food, made with a variety of food (including meat), is low in calories. Research showed that the average calories of homemade baby food was approximately 50 kcal per 100g. Some had as little as 30kcal per 100g.*

*Van Den Boom, S. A. M., Kimber, A. C. and Morgan, J. B., Nutritional composition of home-prepared baby meals in Madrid. Comparison with commercial products in Spain and homemade meals in England, Acta Paediatrics, 1997, 86: 57-62

Please note that this means that replacing milk feeds with solid food (in any form) because a baby is all or not gaining enough weight is completely unscientific. It will not improve weight gain and could cause problems for a baby's digestive system and their eating habits. 

Loss of tongue thrust reflex

The tongue thrust reflex is an in-built safety mechanism that is designed to protect babies from choking. When foreign objects go into the mouth, the tongue pushes (thrusts) them back out of the mouth. This is lost at around 6 months and is a good indicator for readiness for solids. 

The easiest way to check whether your baby has lost the tongue thrust reflex? Give them a bit of banana (or similar) and see if their tongue pushes it back out. 

Development of gag reflex

In adults, the gag reflex is a contraction at the back of the throat that's triggered by an object touching the roof of  the mouth or the back of the tongue. 

In babies aged around 6 months, the gag reflex is triggered by objects at the mid-point of the mouth (much further forward than an adult's, and well away from the airways). 

This is another in-built safety mechanism that is designed to protect against choking. 

It can be alarming for parents, but is not to be confused with choking. Babies will gag and cough (and may even be sick) as they clear the object from their mouth. It is normal and healthy. 

As babies get used to managing and manipulating food around their mouths, the gag reflex moves back towards the back of the throat (at around 9 months). 

Development of core strength - ability to sit with little or no support

To prevent choking, babies must be able to hold their heads or necks upright and be able to sit upright (alone or with a little support). 

This doesn't mean that babies should be able to sit totally unaided, but rather that they should have the core strength to sit up straight in a highchair or on a lap, and hold their heads or necks upright. Babies that are slumping or need to be reclined are at an increased risk of choking as food can slip past the gag reflex towards the airways.

Core strength develops at around 5 – 6 months. 

Development of grasp and grip

At 5 / 6 months, most babies are able to pick up stick-shaped objects using a palmar grasp (open hand, close around object and grip inside the fist), and can also let go again. They are also able to purposefully move objects towards their mouths. 

This is another in-built safety mechanism to stop babies picking objects up and getting them to their mouths before they are ready.

Grasp and grip develops as babies get older, which means they are able to pick up differently sized / shaped / textured objects. This develops as they get more adept at handling food and managing it in their mouths - they can only pick up and get to their mouths what is safe (that being said, some foods need to be made safe, which will be discussed later on). 

At around 7 - 9 mouths, babies are able to grab more mushy foods (mashed potato etc) in their fists and then open their fists to push them into their mouths. 

At around 8 - 10 months, the pincer grip begins to develop. Babies are now able to pick up food with their fingers, without using their palms. This means they can pick up smaller objects like peas. It's also at this stage that you will see babies begin to use 'dippers' (spoons or other pieces of food). 

At around 9 - 12 months, the refined pincer grip develops. This means that they are able to pick up very small pieces of food, like single grains of rice. 

At what age can you expect most babies to begin replacing milk with food?

  • At 6 months
  • Between 9 and 12 months
  • After 12 months

What are some of the true signs of readiness to wean?

  • Loss of the tongue thrust reflex
  • Baby is waking more at night / isn't sleeping through yet
  • Baby is able to sit with little or no support
  • Baby is demanding more milk
  • Baby has developed a palmar grasp and is able to move objects towards their mouth
  • Baby is interested in watching others' eat
  • Baby is chewing on hands / putting objects in mouth

BabyCalm weaning support

Introduction

Introduction to BabyCalm's weaning support

At BabyCalm we are all about informing parents' choices. We provide evidence that can empower parents to make their own decisions. For this reason we have changed from running a "baby-led weaning" workshop to running a "weaning" workshop. Our hope is that by presenting the evidence around weaning, parents will naturally lean towards a baby-led approach to weaning  - but ultimately each family has to choose their own path. In this section we will compare both methods of weaning and will look more closely at the practicalities of a baby-led approach, as this is the approach with which parents will need more support. Mainly because it is currently less common.

Spoon-feeding / purees

Spoon-feeding / purees

Learning to eat

Babies who are spoon fed purees learn to eat by 'slurping' or sucking food from the spoon. 

This can cause issues when they progress onto lumpy purees and finger foods, as they continue to slurp or suck, which can skip food past the mid-point gag reflex and pose a choking risk. 

This slurping and sucking also misses the first step of the digestive process, where the food is chewed and mixed in the mouth with saliva containing digestive enzymes. 

Learning to feed themselves

Babies aged 6 - 12 months are very motivated to feed themselves and love to do so. However, if they don't have the opportunity to feed themselves, once they get past 18 months they can actually lose the inclination to feed themselves. 

Learning about food and preferences

Purees all tend to be a similar colour (depending on what's in them, but they tend to end up an orangey brown colour), as well as a similar texture. All the tastes (of whatever is in that puree) are also blended together and are indistinguishable. 

They also don't at the same (recognisable) foods as other family members. 

Because pureed foods aren't individually recognisable, the solid version of that puree wouldn't be recognised by the baby as the same food. Babies can't tell which food they like and which they dislike.

Learning about mealtimes

Babies who are spoon fed tend to be fed at a different time to other members of the family. They're also fed in a different way, and eat different food. 

Learning about appetite

Babies are born with a great inbuilt satiety response - that is, they are very aware of when they are full and want to stop eating. 

Parents can inadvertently override this by encouraging children to eat 'one more spoon', and continuing to feed their baby even when the baby is displaying clear communication that they have had enough (closing mouth and turning head away). 

Parents can also worry that babies haven't eaten enough (due to large portion sizes compared to babies' small stomachs), which can add to this. 

Pros and cons of spoon feeding / purees

Pros

  • Parents in control 
  • Know how much babies are eating 
  • More socially acceptable 
  • Portable 
  • Less mess 
  • Everyone can do it
  • If bought, no preparation needed
  • Some really enjoy preparing purees
  • Baby eats more food quicker 
  • Drops milk quicker 
  • Meal times quicker


Cons

  • Need to remember food 
  • Cost (if buying premade)
  • Preparation time 
  • Need to buy equipment 
  • Not responsive to baby’s cues 
  • Frustration if baby rejects – time / money invested
  • Dropping milk feeds – overall nutrition goes down
  • Progression of eating learning – slurping = increased choking risk 
  • Miss first step of digestive process

Shop-bought baby food in the UK

The First Steps Nutrition Trust have produced a fantastic report on shop-bought baby food in the UK, focusing on the four main brands. 

We're not going to reproduce the information here (as the whole report is relevant) - instead, we'd like you to read the report in full. 

There are many points to take from it that are relevant to the weaning workshop. The main ones are that shop-bought foods:

  • Processed puréed baby foods based on fruits (and some vegetables) have a high sugar content
  • Some infant foods are sweetened with fruit juice and added sugar
  • Manufacturers use fruit and vegetables to provide sweet flavours, even when the dish appears to be a savoury option (and this is not highlighted in the name)
  • The main vegetable used in many mixed savoury dishes is carrot, often in combination with other sweeter vegetables such as tomato, sweet potato, parsnip and squash. Few savoury meals have cauliflower, broccoli or other green vegetables as the main vegetable without a sweeter one added as well
  • The water content of many commercial baby foods is high, and this means that the energy density of the food is likely to be lower. A baby therefore needs to eat a high volume of most commercial baby food to obtain the energy and nutrients found in a smaller portion of home-made food
  • The energy content of commercial baby food is highly variable across products and many commercial foods have a low energy density. However, the portion sizes of many commercial baby foods are large, and a portion frequently exceeds estimated energy requirements at meals
  • A number of foods marketed to infants under 6 months of age still contain ingredients that are not recommended in the diet before 6 months of age in the UK, such as gluten, egg and cows’ milk
  • Most baby foods containing meat and  fish contain the minimum amount required to meet regulations
  • The protein content of commercial baby foods is sufficient, but infants often have to eat large volumes of food to obtain the protein present

The full report can be found here: Baby Foods in the UK on First Steps Nutrition Trust website 

Please note: the above points tend not to apply to homemade purees (the differences are addressed in the report). 

Baby-led weaning

Baby-led weaning

Learning to eat

Baby-led weaning allows babies to feed themselves right from the beginning. 

This means that they learn to handle food and to manipulate it safely in their mouths, leading to a decreased choking risk. 

It also means that the food is chewed and mixed in the mouth with saliva containing digestive enzymes (the first step of the digestive process). 

Learning to feed themselves

Babies aged 6 - 12 months are very motivated to feed themselves and love to do so. It is an important time for play and learning, and helps to develop new skills and fine-tune coordination.

Babies are allowed to have control over what they do and don't eat.

Learning about food and preferences

Food is individually recognisable, which means that babies very quickly learn what various foods taste, smell and feel like. It also means that they can form individual likes and dislikes.

They also eat exactly the same foods as other family members, which signals that those foods are safe to eat. 

Learning about mealtimes

Babies eat at the same time as other family members, learning new skills through modelling and also learning about the social aspect of mealtimes.

They also don't get frustrated through boredom when others are eating as they have something (food) in front of them to entertain them and play with.

Learning about appetite

Babies are born with a great inbuilt satiety response - that is, they are very aware of when they are full and want to stop eating. 

Babies who are weaned in a baby-led way are in total control of what and how much they eat, and decide for themselves when to stop. This respects and nurtures their appetite control.  

Pros and cons of baby-led weaning

Pros

  • Easier 
  • Cheaper (if buying usual) 
  • Makes family healthier 
  • Baby sees modelling and learns 
  • Baby learns everyone eats same 
  • More fun for baby 
  • Learning, multi-sensory experience 
  • Appetite control respected 
  • Less frustrated 
  • Learning to eating safely

Cons

  • Messy 
  • More waste 
  • Slow meal times 
  • Uneasy doing it out 
  • People’s assumptions / social comparisons 
  • Take food less quickly
  • Hard to know how much baby eaten 
  • Have to think ahead – meals / food in house 
  • Have to adjust own diet

Practicalities of baby-led weaning

Practicalities of baby-led weaning

  • Continue with milk feeds as normal. Up until around 9 months, you probably won't see any difference in milk intake. Between 9 months and 1 year, your baby will gradually begin to alter the balance of milk and food to make food a higher priority. 
  • Don't expect them to eat very much to begin with. It's not until 9 - 12 months that they eat a significant amount of food, and not until over a year that food is the main source of nutrition.
  • During the first months of weaning, don't sit your baby in front of food when they're hungry. This will lead to upset and frustration to begin with as they won't be able to ease their hunger with solids yet. Give milk first, as usual, and then follow with mealtimes a bit later.
  • Don't worry if your baby 'misses' a meal (because they're tired, or cranky, or asleep). They're still getting the nutrition they need from milk, not food.
  • Eat together as a family whenever possible. If it's not possible, at least try to have one person eating with your baby so they're not eating alone.
  • Eat the same food as your baby. 
  • Treat mealtimes as playtimes - they're not about nutrition to begin with, but rather a multi-sensory learning experience. It doesn't matter what or how much is eaten, what's important is that your baby is having fun.
  • Offer food by putting it in front of your baby, rather than putting it into their hand or mouth. If you want to show them how to do something (dipping, drinking from a cup etc), model it by doing it yourself. 
  • If you want to offer typically runny foods like porridge or yoghurt, just cook them for a bit longer so they thicken up or go for thicker alternatives (like Greek yoghurt). You can then put them on preloaded spoons and put the spoons in front of your baby. Dipping is a skill that develops later, but you can have a bowl / pot of the food in front of them so they can see you modelling and have a go themselves. You can also do this with dipping foods like hummus, for example, and can load these onto food dippers - like strips of pitta or vegetables. 
  • Offer a variety of tastes and types of food from various food groups. Babies will choose a near-perfectly balance diet for themselves over the course of a week - but the food needs to be offered for them to be able to do this. 
  • Offer food according to your baby's grasp / grip development (so to begin with, prepare food in a stick shape). You can put other food in front of them in addition to food that they can manage (eg peas) but don't expect them to be able to manage them - they'll try though.
  • Offer water and model how to drink it, but don't worry if they don't drink it - it's not necessary (especially for breastfed babies). 
  • Be prepared for longer mealtimes - babies can get very absorbed in their play and experimentation with food.
  • Expect mess. The easiest thing to do is embrace it - if you're having something very messy or that will stain, strip your baby off. If you need to, put something down to protect floors (and don't underestimate a baby's throw).  Also remember that whenever you move your baby onto solid food, there will be mess. All you're doing with baby-led weaning is experiencing the messy period earlier.

Allowing babies control over their eating

Allowing babies control over their eating

One of the main differences between spoon-feeding and baby-led weaning is where the control is. 

With spoon-feeding, weaning is parent-led and the parent is in control of the following:

  • when to begin (in terms of age)
  • when to offer food (at particular mealtimes and when hungry as milk is typically removed and replaced with food)
  • putting food in the child's mouth
  • the pacing of the meal
  • when the meal ends

With baby-led weaning, the baby is in control:

  • babies display physical signs that they are ready
  • food is offered when the baby is calm and not hungry (they have been given control over satiating their own hunger through milk first)
  • babies choose what they put into their own mouths
  • they set the pace of the meal
  • they decide when they have had enough

When babies are left to their own devices, they will choose a near-perfectly balanced diet over the course of a week (as long as they are offered a variety of foods). By giving them control over their own eating, we are trusting them and their appetite. They are also able to demonstrate preferences and choose their own likes and dislikes. This helps them to grow up with a much healthier attitude to and relationship with food.

Foods to take care with

Foods to take care with

Foods to make safe

As we mentioned before, there are some foods that pose an increased choking risk and need to be made safe before we give them to babies. The reason that these foods pose an increased risk is because of their size, shape, and texture. They are all rounded, smooth, slippery, and the perfect size to plug a child's airway. They are incredibly difficult to get out if a child chokes on them (even in the case of emergency services). This doesn't mean that we should never give them to our children - they are easy to make safe by altering the shape, size, and / or texture. 

  • Whole grapes - halve them lengthways (and the recommendation is until your child is at least 5 years of age)
  • Cherry tomatoes - halve them (and the recommendation is until your child is at least 5 years of age)
  • Blueberries - squish them a little so the skin splits
  • Cherries - halve them 
  • Whole nuts - do not give them until your child is aged over 5
  • Sausages with skin on (and hot dogs) - remove the skin if giving whole, or cut into strips lengthways (rather than round slices). Care should be taken with hot dogs - they are one of the biggest causes of choking in the US. 

Foods to avoid

There are some foods that should be avoided for babies, regardless of the method of weaning. 

  • Honey - should be avoided until your child is aged over 1. This is for all honey, whether cooked or not (so includes honey roast ham, honey roast parsnips etc). This is because of the risk of botulism spores which a baby's digestive system is not mature enough to handle.
  • Salt - under 1 year of age, a baby's daily salt intake should be below 1g. After a year (and up to 2 years) it rises to 2g a day. Be aware of hidden salts, especially in jar and packet food, as well as ready meals (and even pre-packaged dips and sauces like hummus, pesto etc). Parents just need to check labels and also be aware of foods that contain more salt (cheese etc), and consider daily intake accordingly. 
  • Sugar - as with salt, it is the hidden sugars that are the ones to watch out for, in packaged food and ready meals. Children's yoghurts usually have lots of sugar in. Again, it is a case of reading labels and being aware.
  • Cows milk as a drink under 1 year of age - cows milk (and dairy in general) is absolutely fine to be used in cooking / as food from the start of weaning . However it should not be used as a replacement for breastmilk or formula until a child is at least 1 year of age. 

Gagging and choking

Gagging and choking

Choking is one of parents' biggest fears when it comes to weaning babies - and many parents mistakenly think that following baby-led weaning and giving a baby solid food straight away can increase the risk of choking. 

Actually the opposite is true (as we discussed earlier). 

What to do when babies gag

Gagging is normal and healthy, and babies who are gagging should be left alone. Keeping a calm, unsettled demeanour is the best way to approach it (although it can be really hard).

BabyCentre published a brilliant video which has some great examples of gagging in it (below). 

What not to do when babies gag

If parents interfere with a gagging child, for example by doing any of the following, it can actually lead to choking rather than allowing the child to clear the food from their mouth:

  • acting panicky and flustered - this can frighten the child and make them 'suck in' breath, moving the food further back towards the airways
  • putting their finger in their child's mouth to try and fish out the food - this can push the food back towards the airways
  • picking their child up - can cause food to move back towards the airways
  • patting / hitting their child on the back - can cause food to move back towards the airways

The differences between gagging and choking

The Red Cross published a graphic highlighting the differences between gagging and choking (shown below). 

It's also worth signposting parents towards local first aid courses so that they know what to do in the event of a choking child.

Facts about baby-led weaning

  • You should continue with milk feeds as normal
  • You shouldn't expect them to eat very much to begin with
  • You shouldn't sit your baby in front of food when they're hungry
  • You should remove milk feeds and replace them with solid food
  • Make sure your baby is hungry when you give them food
  • Make sure your baby doesn't miss a meal
  • Offer a variety of tastes and types of food from various food groups
  • Don't offer food like porridge or yoghurt as your baby won't be able to manage them. If you want to give them, you'll have to spoon-feed.
  • Don't let mealtimes go on for too long
  • Offer food according to your baby's grasp / grip development
  • Treat mealtimes as playtimes

What happens when babies are allowed control over their own eating?

When babies are left to their own devices, they will choose a near-perfectly balanced diet over the course of a (as long as they are offered a variety of foods). By giving them control over their own eating, we are trusting them and . They are also able to demonstrate preferences and choose their own . This helps them to grow up with a much healthier attitude to, and relationship with, food.