Like so many of you, I did tons of research when I was pregnant with my first baby. I knew I wanted to breastfed, and I wanted to use child-led weaning, and I wanted my baby to be in charge when it came to starting solids. I got the breastfeeding bit down pretty quickly, and she didn't wean until I was pregnant with my second… and I used baby-led weaning with her and my next two babies. But baby-led weaning didn't work for baby #4, and I decided not to use it with baby #5 or 6, either. Here's why:
What is Baby-Led Weaning
I can't cover why I don't use baby-led weaning without first explaining what it is. Firstly, baby-led “weaning” is not really weaning off of breastmilk. It's actually starting solid foods. So you could call it “baby-led solids.” But the weaning process does naturally (and generally very gradually) have its beginning with the introduction of solids, which is why “starting solids” is referred to as weaning in much of the world.
Traditionally, parents have taken the lead with introducing solid foods to their little ones, often beginning with mashes, watery cereals, or porridge. Letting baby take the lead means you introduce foods in chunks that baby can take in his or herself – there's no real spoon feeding until baby can wield a spoon!
The chunks of food are generally not small – they need to be big enough for baby to pick up with a immature grasping mechanism. Little ones quickly get pretty adept at picking up food, and once the “pincer grasp” (picking up bits of food or other objects between two fingers) develops, they can really clean their plates!
But, at first, fist-sized chunks of food are often used. There's no real prescribed diet, though there are traditional “weaning foods” like banana chunks, avocado chunks, etc. Meats are often introduced in fist-sized chunks. Baby first tends to suck on these, then learns to handle them.
As will all solid foods, you should be right there with baby when he or she is experimenting with foods suitable for baby-lead weaning.
Why It's a Great Choice for Many
This method of baby feeding was popularized and detailed out by Gill Rapley, a midwife and health visitor, in her detailed book Baby-Led Weaning (highly recommended if you're interested in this for your baby).
As I said, it takes advantage of baby's natural readiness for solids at around 6 months, as is traditional, but puts baby squarely in the lead. You just give your baby chunks of food of the right size, and let him or her go at it. It's nice for moms because it takes a lot of the “work” out of preparing baby foods. There's no pureeing or freezing, and there are no “recipes” needed. There's no need to buy jarred baby food – you can just give baby bits of what you're having for your own meal.
Babies are allowed to explore foods and show their own preferences. Your little one also gets to be part of family mealtimes right away, rather than having separate meals or even a separate feeding time.
It's also good for baby developmentally, because he or she has the chance (and the motivation of tasty treats) to practice fine and gross motor skills during mealtimes.
I like this method of introducing solids because it makes it easy to dump unhealthy “first food” choices like rice cereal and instead give veggies, fruit chunks, or meats, all of which are more nutrient dense. Babies can also digest these foods more easily (the enzymes for digesting grain products don't develop until baby is 2 – 3 years old). Of course you could always give your baby hunks of bread – but it's also just as easy to make other choices!
What Are the Other Options?
What are the options if you don't choose baby-led weaning? Most consider traditional weaning if they're not serving large, baby-tailored chunks. That means starting with purees.
With my first three babies, I didn't want to use purees, but I didn't know it was OK to give fist-sized chunks of food at six months old. So we generally delayed starting solids until they were older. My second and third babies started at around 8 months old, and both of them ate with gusto at that point. My first baby wasn't interested in foods at all until around 11 months – and in hindsight I think she'd have benefited from an early introduction to fist-sized chunks or just going with purees and “traditional” methods from the start. She may have been more willing to start solids if we'd started early (though I don't know that for sure) – and she wouldn't have been quite so tiny at a year old.
Essentially, there are many options and many variations. At this point: six babies of my own and many, many students counseled, I usually advise at least offering solids starting at six months and picking either traditional purees or baby-led weaning. I cover all of this in my own guide, First Bites and Beyond. I truly think both are good options for families.
I also think delaying the introduction of solids if baby isn't interested at six months is okay for breastfed babies, but wouldn't delay past eight months. Baby does begin to need supplementary calories as he or she gets more and more active!
Our Journey with Feeding Difficulties
So what made our family switch from baby-led weaning to starting with purees?
I'd fully intended to begin solids with our fourth baby, Galen, the same way I had with the first three. Since both Asher and Brennan had started eating enthusiastically by eight months, I wasn't too worried when Galen wanted nothing to do with solids at six months. I didn't really worry when eight or nine months slipped by, because Cassidy had also waited that long. But by ten months I was remembering how tiny Cassidy had been – and Galen hadn't gained any weight since his six month appointment. When Galen's first birthday arrived I was really worried, and I'd started noticing other things. Galen never put anything in his mouth.
Babies always shove things in their mouths! It doesn't matter if it's food or if they're hungry, they explore their world by mouthing things. That was a huge red flag for me and I started insisting that our family doctor take a closer look at Galen. She wasn't sure what was going on, and referred us to Early Intervention. Nobody wanted to take me seriously, but I finally managed to get us an appointment with an occupational therapist at our local feeding clinic. Sure enough, Galen was not only incredibly underweight, he had major oral aversions and sensory problems that caused him to refuse solid foods or even anything solid in his mouth.
We immediately started very watery purees (and I immediately started doing everything I could to boost breastmilk supply and quality). It took months to get Galen eating “real foods” but one year later, just after his second birthday, I came close to crying at Thanksgiving dinner because Galen ate a chicken drumstick with no problem! It represented, to me, that we'd overcome a lot of challenges. Today Galen is six years old, and he's still small for his age, but he's a great eater and I'm hopeful he'll “catch up” with his adolescent growth spurt 🙂
A Happy Baby – With Mama-Led Weaning
I'll be honest, after watching Galen struggle I was terrified of having another baby “fall of the growth charts” and get that dreaded “failure to thrive” history (though Galen did remain active and cheerful, despite being tiny).
When Honor came along I knew I wanted to do differently with her, for my own peace of mind. I made the choice to make Honor's food right from the start. I'd never had trouble making purees for Galen – I pureed together whatever we were eating for supper, and served him a lot of fruit and cream purees to help him put on extra padding. It had been slow going at first (I was lucky to get half a teaspoon of food into him), but as he warmed up to eating, it went a lot better. I was confident I could start Honor with purees.
Thankfully, Honor never had sensory issues like Galen did. And I actually enjoyed making her little purees each day. I tended to make what we were having (simplified at first) and just pureed it in a small food processor. She loved to eat, and I listened to her cues for how much she wanted every day. By eight or nine months, she was interested in feeding herself and we transitioned towards more “family style meals” and never looked back! She's still a good eater.
Honor was also very happy – she continued to breastfeed well even though I introduced purees right around six months old. She gained weight well, and she was also part of our family meals right from the start. Her meals did take a little more work for me initially, but to me the peace of mind was well worth a couple of minutes with the blender!
Another Baby with Oral Aversions
When Corwin came along I knew I'd start him with purees just like I did with Honor. I ended up being very glad I did. Corwin showed much of the same signs Galen had when it came to eating. Like Galen, he had an incredibly strong gag reflex and didn't like things in his mouth.
Because I started with very thin purees, I was able to get Corwin used to eating solids. But unlike Honor, who had switched from purees to more “baby-led” style foods after only a couple of months, Corwin just could not eat anything that wasn't pureed.
In fact, it took Corwin until after his first birthday to be able to eat more textures. As I write this, Corwin is almost two, and he's able to eat pretty much anything I serve – but it was nerve-wracking for awhile.
Unlike Galen, Corwin stayed chunky and healthy all through his first year (and he's still a chubby toddler!). I feel this is because he continued to get my milk (of course), and because he had the extra calories he needed as he got more mobile and more adventurous. Even though his foods had to be pureed for what felt like ages (!!!), he was still getting the nutrition.
Corwin was part of family mealtimes right from the start, just as Honor was, and stayed part of that mealtime experience even though his food needed to be pureed.
Traditional Weaning – Traditional Foods
Most cultures began weaning with particular foods and methods. Some started very early (earlier than we tend to think is wise today), but many waited until around the six-month mark, as is common today. Some cultures did use baby-led weaning, and many also started baby with gruels or mashed foods. Many used a combination as baby matured and transitioned, much like happened for us with Honor. It's always good to look at the past because there are often nuggets of wisdom to discover!
Traditional peoples tended to feed very nutrient-dense foods to pregnant women, nursing mothers, and babies (gruels being a glaring exception!). Many of our traditional weaning foods like sweet potatoes, bananas, avocados, and meats/meat purees have been used as baby's first foods for centuries.
I felt confident that we were giving Galen, Honor, and Corwin a good diet and a good start. After all, they were following a long legacy of healthy babies who did start with nutrient-dense pureed foods. And all of them thrived with having their solid food journeys start with purees.
For me it brought incredible peace of mind to see Honor and Corwin thriving both from my milk, and from the foods I lovingly served them at mealtimes. We'll start any future babies on purees at around six months, too, and rest assured that they'll get excellent nutrition and plenty of family interaction, too. “Starting solids” has been an interesting part of my mothering journey, and like so many things has required flexibility and reconsideration – but I'm happy with the balance we've found and hope that sharing our story helps you find balance for yours!