Pros and cons of baby-led weaning

Feeding babies is one of the most basic and universal parts of parenting – humans have been doing it for as long as humans have existed! In all that time, though, humanity hasn’t yet come to any kind of universally accepted agreement on what’s the right way to feed the newest members of the family. One of the big debates today is between spoon-feeding a baby purees and baby-led weaning, which is a feeding style that allows for babies to be presented with soft pieces of finger food – typically cut into spears or strips that are easy to grasp, gum, and bite – as their first introduction to food that isn’t breast milk or formula.

Both spoon-feeding and baby-led weaning have benefits and potential problems, but both can be perfectly healthy ways to feed Baby – because the most important factor in making either way the ‘right way’ to feed Baby is making sure that they are getting a balanced menu of nutrients and gets enough to eat to keep growing and developing on schedule. In fact, sometimes the method you end up following isn’t entirely up to you – sometimes the feeding method you follow depends more on what Baby wants (or demands) than on what you’ve envisioned for Baby’s early eating habits. You’re one of Baby’s strongest influences, though – and you’re the one planning the menu, after all – so it’s highly likely that whatever you present to them is exactly what they'll end up eating.

Pros of baby-led weaning

  • Raising a potentially more adventurous eater: There haven’t been any definitive studies to back it up, but there is anecdotal evidence that children who start eating solids using baby-led weaning can have less of a chance of turning into picky eaters as they get older, since they’ve been exposed to a variety of textures and flavors at an early age. More definitively, parents who follow baby-led weaning don’t have to move through the second weaning process of tempting their children away from purees and over to foods with more complex textures, which some babies, especially children who start out eating mostly pureed food, can have a hard time with.
  • Coordination practice: Every move Baby makes at this point in their life is practice using their body, and self-feeding is no different. Babies who self-feed get to practice their hand-eye coordination, figure out chewing earlier than babies who don’t end up needing to, and often seem to develop and refine their pincer-grasp fairly early.
  • Bonding time: Self-feeding lends itself well to getting Baby used to eating at the same time as their family, since no one has to wait to eat to feed them. And because baby-led weaning supporters generally recommend having Baby eat the same foods as the rest of the family, as long as they’re prepared without seasoning like salt or sugar, it’s both a way of sharing culture and community through food and of getting Baby used to the way your family eats.
  • Promotes self-regulation: The ‘baby-led’ part of baby-led weaning means that the baby involved decides when to stop eating, which means that they learn early to listen to their hunger cues, and to avoid overeating. On the other hand, spoon-feeding carries the danger that, if you’re not watching Baby’s cues to see when they are full, they may keep eating after the point when they might have stopped if left to their own devices.

Cons of baby-led weaning

  • Nutritional balance: Some food groups, like vegetables, which can be boiled or steamed, and fruits, which are often soft enough without much preparation (besides maybe peeling them), are easily represented in baby-led weaning. But others, like protein, and along with that the iron Baby needs, are harder to make into an easily palatable form when Baby is still so toothless. Of course, there are ways to prepare meats, eggs, beans, or lentils, but it’s not always obvious how to prepare these foods in a way that lets Baby easily feed themself.
  • Timing: Baby-led weaning is, by definition, led by Baby, which means that parents who follow baby-led weaning more strictly don’t start offering food until their child starts reaching for it, and since all babies develop at different rates, a few children may end up not getting the nutrients they need as soon as they need them. Beyond that, since self-feeding takes more of Baby’ coordination and concentration, it may take longer for them to reach the point where they can feed themself enough in one sitting that they no longer need to nurse.
  • Mess: There’s no getting around it – and even baby-led weaning supporters agree – when Baby starts feeding themself, they are going to make a bit of a mess, because learning to eat is hard. And because Baby’s favorite thing to do right now is to explore the world, they may just think a food fight with themself is a lot of fun.

Can you do both?

Some parents take a more moderate view that a combination of baby-led weaning and spoon-feeding purees can be the best way to get Baby started on solids and can give them the benefits of both methods. It’s worth noting that some proponents of baby-led weaning don’t believe you should switch between these two styles of feeding, but most experts don’t think it’s a problem. (And the most recent studies show that babies eating solids in either feeding style experience a comparable incidence of choking.) Experts feel that what’s really most important is that babies are always supervised while eating and not given foods that pose a choking hazard – like nuts, uncut grapes or small tomatoes, uncut hotdogs or sausage, large chunks of meat or cheese, hard uncooked vegetables or fruit, and gum, candy, or marshmallows. 

So just what’s best?

There are many wrong ways to feed Baby – upside-down, for example, or exclusively in potato chips – but the choice between baby-led weaning and spoon-feeding does not actually have a wrong answer. It may have an answer that’s wrong for you, though, or that’s wrong for Baby. Luckily, there’s no rule that says you can’t try one method, then switch to the other if you think it will work better for your family. And, as always, if you have any questions about how to best feed your little one, you should talk to Baby‘s healthcare provider who will be able to provide you with even more guidance. 

  • Amy Brown, Sara Wyn Jones, Hannah Rowan. “Baby-Led Weaning: The Evidence to Date.” Current Nutrition Reports, 6(2): 148–156. 2017. Retrieved September 24 2018.
  • Sonya L. Cameron, Anne-Louise M. Heath, Rachael W. Taylor. “How Feasible Is Baby-Led Weaning as an Approach to Infant Feeding? A Review of the Evidence.” Nutrients. 4(11): 1575–1609. November 2012. Retrieved September 24 2018.
  • Louise J. Fangupo, Anne-Louise M. Heath, Sheila M. Williams, Liz W. Erickson Williams, et al. “A Baby-Led Approach to Eating Solids and Risk of Choking.” Pediatrics. 138(4). October 2016. Retrieved September 24 2018.
  • “Starting Solid Foods.” American Academy of Pediatrics, January 1 2018. Retrieved September 24 2018.
  • “The latest guidelines for introducing solids to babies.” CHOC Children’s. Children’s Hospital of Orange County, June 7 2017. Retrieved September 24 2018.

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