For the first six months of your baby’s life, breast milk is all they needed to grow and be healthy. Now, at about six months old, they are likely ready to eat solid foods. Breast milk is still the most important food, but you can now add solid foods during their feedings.
Parents are the first educators of baby’s senses. All healthy babies can begin to feed themselves from about six months. They just need to be given the opportunity. (Montessori, M., Children discover)
Solids foods will provide nutrients, flavors and textures. These are all important for their overall growth and development.
Nowadays, there are three central methods of baby feeding:
- Baby-led weaning
- Traditional food (purée)
This blog I will present you with a general introduction for each of the methods that are mentioned above.
The Baby-Led Weaning Method
Let’s start with the first method: baby-led weaning, which has been approved by the Baby Centre Medical Advisory Board. This method of baby feeding is considered the newest method, founded by Gill Rapley in 2013 in the United Kingdom. This method helps to ensure the correct physical and mental development of the baby in their early stages of their life.
Baby-led weaning introduces solid foods while allowing babies to feed themselves. In this method, babies do not need spoons or purées. Instead, they can sit with the family at mealtimes and join in when they are ready, feeding themselves first with their fingers and later with cutlery.
Several studies on childhood development emphasize that the advantages of the baby-led weaning method are that it:
- Allows babies to explore taste, texture, color and smell of food,
- Encourages independence and confidence,
- Helps to develop their hand-eye coordination and chewing skills,
- Makes picky eating and mealtime battles less likely.
Parents who have tried BLW are generally passionate about its benefits. They say their babies will eat anything and everything, which helps to take the worry out of starting with solids. But although there is plenty of anecdotal evidence about the benefits of BLW, not much formal research has been done.
However, one study did find that babies who are allowed to feed themselves from the beginning of weaning are more likely to join in with family mealtimes and eat a wide range of foods from an early age.
Another study found that BLW encourages babies to choose healthier foods, which could protect against obesity in childhood.
The baby-led weaning method is based on the way babies develop in their first year. Babies’ immune and digestive systems aren’t ready for other foods until they are about six months old, so until that point, breast milk (or infant formula milk) is all healthy babies need.
In the past, when babies were started on solid foods at three or four months old, they had to be spoon fed with purées. At six months, most babies are able to sit upright, pick up pieces of food, take them to their mouth and chew them—in other words, they can feed themselves.
In addition, if you wait until your baby is six months to introduce solid foods, you will have skipped the purée stage, so there’s no need to start with that extra step.
According to the conceptual framework, this method offers opportunities for children to choose:
- When to start their meals,
- What they will eat (they chose what to each from a variety of healthy options offered by their caregivers),
- The rhythm of their meals,
- The amount of food that will be ingested at each meal.
Of course, all new parents need to know which food can they offer their babies, which food to avoid and how to get started. These issues will be discussed in our second lesson.
As recommended by the World Health Organization and several other health authorities across the world, there is no need to introduce solid food to a baby’s diet until after six months of age, and by then the child’s digestive system and their fine motor skills have developed enough to allow them to self-feed. Baby-led weaning takes advantage of the natural development stages of the child.
Parents are not recommended to start the BLW if:
- They have a family history of allergies, digestive problems, or food intolerances,
- Their baby has special needs and can’t chew very well or has difficulty picking up food and moving it to their mouth,
- Their baby was born prematurely.
The Self-Feeding Method
Once your baby starts showing an interest in feeding themselves, it’s critical to provide many opportunities for them to practice this skill. The key to mastering self-feeding is to let them try, try and try again.
A good way to start is to place a few pieces of food on your baby’s highchair tray. Let them feel it. It may seem as if they are just playing with it, but that’s actually how they learn.
Initially, your baby may grasp the food with a raking motion, using the entire fist to move the food toward their mouth. Eventually, they’ll develop the fine motor skill of grabbing the food with the thumb and forefinger, called the pincer grasp.
Setting aside time at the beginning of the meal for practice is a good idea, since their desire to eat will be stronger and may help in motivating them to bring the food to their mouth. If your baby gets frustrated, allow them to finish the meal and eat how they normally would. Just remember to keep trying at other meals throughout the day.
The foods you give your baby to practice self-feeding should be soft and easily mashed. Here are some ideas for first finger foods to try:
- Small pieces of ripe, soft bananas, avocados, peaches or kiwi,
- Soft cooked sweet potatoes, peas or carrots,
- Grated or soft cooked apples and pears,
- Soft cooked whole grain pasta,
- Cubes, strings or small pieces of cheese,
- Shreds or small diced pieces of cooked chicken, fish or turkey.
Foods that pose a risk of choking should be avoided. Examples include nuts, whole grapes, hot dogs, raw carrots, raisins, popcorn, and portions of food that are too large.
Jean Piaget emphases in his theory of socialization that after your baby masters self-feeding with their hands, the next step is offering utensils. Most children become very proficient with self-feeding with spoons and forks between 18-24 months, but that doesn’t mean you need to wait until then to start exposing them to utensils.
Just as your baby needed a lot of practice eating with their hands, they will also need many opportunities to attempt eating with utensils. A good way to begin encouraging this transition is to give them their own baby or toddler-friendly spoon or fork. With practice, your baby will learn the motions and see the sequence of events that get the food into their mouth via the utensil.
Thicker foods like oatmeal or mashed sweet potatoes are good practice foods since they will more easily stick to the utensil. It will be messy for a while, but just try to remember that the more practice they have, the more efficient they will become.
Once your baby has gotten the hang of dipping the utensil into the food and bringing it to their mouth, consider giving them their own small bowl. Allow them to feed themselves from their bowl while still feeding them from yours.
Once the baby tries to demonstrate that they are getting most of the contents of their bowl into their mouth, you can slowly give them more in their bowl while having less in yours, until they are mostly feeding themselves.
Remember, it is a learning process and it will take some time before your baby is proficiently at feeding themselves. In the meantime, have fun and be prepared to get messy!
Some tips for this stage of feeding:
- Help your baby be successful with eating.
- Make sure baby is sitting up during meal times—in a highchair is best.
- Include your baby in the family mealtime routine—feed your baby while other family members are eating.
- Stay with your baby when they are eating.
- Talk quietly and encourage them while they eat.
Let your baby take the lead with eating:
- Let your baby open their mouth before you feed them.
- Let your baby touch their food—in the dish, on the spoon or on the tray.
- Allow them to feed themselves with their fingers as soon as they show interest.
- Feed your baby at their pace. Do not try to get them to go faster or slower than they want to.
- Stop feeding when your baby shows that they have had enough.
- Do not force your baby to finish their food. A baby will eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. Remember: a baby’s appetite can change from day to day.
- Be patient when offering new foods. It may take 15-20 tries of a new food before your baby likes it.
- Have fun!
Signs of hunger include:
- Appearing excited and smacking their lips when placed in the highchair.
- Opening their mouth when offered food.
- Leaning forward and reaching for the food
Signs of fullness:
- Shutting their mouth when offered food.
- Turning or pushing the food away.
- Crying to get out of their highchair.
The Traditional Food (Purée) Method
Puréed or well-mashed food is an obvious bridge between liquid and solid foods. It’s easy for parents to see how much their baby is eating if you spoon-feed them. By six months, babies can take food off a spoon using their upper lip, rather than sucking the food off. By eight months, babies can chew and swallow foods with lumps in.
With the establishment of six months as the recommended age, worldwide, for the introduction of complementary foods (WHO/UNICEF, 2003), interest in baby-led weaning—an approach in which the infant feeds themselves from the outset with graspable pieces of food (Rapley, 2013)—has grown.
Evidence suggests that pureed foods and spoon feeding may not be essential elements of the move away from full milk feeding, and that the feeding method may have an impact on food preferences. In a study by Townsend and Pitchford (2012), infants fed using a baby-led approach showed a greater preference for non-sugary carbohydrates in the toddler years (20–78 months) than spoon-fed infants.
What has not been explored is why this may be and, specifically, whether there is something in the nature of the difference between the two feeding methods as experienced by the infant that may explain it. There is a general assumption that the giving of pureed food to infants by spoon is evidence-based, but it is difficult to find justification for this view. Rather, it seems that it has simply become common practice in industrialized societies (Rapley, 2016a, 2016b).
And yet neither the consistency of the food nor the means by which it finds its way to the infant’s mouth has been considered as a confounding variable, even in the most recent studies relating to the introduction of solid foods. Indeed, the report by Chambers et al. (2016) of a roundtable discussion looking at ‘Ways of introducing vegetables during complementary feeding’ (p. 272) refers only to possible combinations of vegetables and the need for variety, with no mention of the potential impact of the feeding method.
- Rapley G, Murkett T. Baby‑led weaning: helping your baby to love good food. Reino Unido: Vermilion; 2008.
- World Health Organization. Infant and young feeding: model chapter for medical students and allied health professionals. Geneva: WHO; 2009.
- World Health Organization. Commission on ending childhood obesity. Geneva: WHO; 2016.
- Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group. Contact: Gill Rapley [email protected] Early Child Development and Care. 2018. VOL. 188. NO. 8. (pp.1109–1123) https://doi.org/10.1080/03004430.2016.1250080.