Sarah Remmer: The Non-Diet Dietitian


Introducing Solids: Baby-Led Weaning Vs. Spoon Feeding

Is baby-led weaning better than traditional spoon-feeding?

My daughter is two weeks shy of her six-month birthday and I think that we are just about ready to introduce her to one of life's true pleasures — food! I have no doubt that she is ready. She watches with intent as we eat our meals, she's sitting up and she reaches for food when I'm having a snack. As a second-time mom, I feel much more relaxed about weaning her than I did with my son. I think that most first-time Moms can agree — introducing solids for the first time is a nerve-wracking process. What should you introduce first? How thick should it be? Should you use organic foods? Homemade or store-bought? What if he hates it?!?!

The second time around, it all seems a little more manageable and not as big of a deal.

Although I would have never even entertained the thought of letting my son have finger foods right off the bat three years ago, after a friend of mine told me that she used the "baby-led weaning" approach to starting solids, I was both intrigued and slightly confused as to how it was even possible. More recently, "baby-led weaning" (BLW) has gained popularity and created a buzz among nutrition experts and Moms. Most Moms who follow this approach are huge advocates and swear by it. Some die-hard baby-led weaners even go so far as to declare spoon-feeding unnatural and forceful—something that will doom a child to a life of picky eating and/or emotional eating issues. There is no evidence to support this though, and knowing what I know about nutrition, feeding and emotional eating, I believe it is much more complicated than whether a baby was fed with a spoon or not. 

What is baby-led weaning? 

Baby-led weaning (a term coined my Gill Rapley, a former public health nurse and midwife) essentially means that you skip pureed foods all together and your baby self feeds right from the start of weaning (around 6 months of age) with breast milk or formula "on tap." According to the Baby-Led Weaning website, babies are developmentally capable of feeding themselves proper solid foods by the age of 6 months, so there is no need for purees. Just real food that the rest of the family is eating. You offer your baby suitably sized pieces of food at the table (presumably the same food that the rest of the family is eating) and it is up to baby whether he or she eats it or not and how much. 

This is a stark contrast to the tried and true spoon-feeding method of introducing babies to solids, where babies start with thinly pureed foods first (which are fed by the parent with a spoon) and then gradually, over a period of months, move towards thicker consistencies, and eventually finger foods. Higher iron foods such as pureed meats or iron-fortified infant cereals are recommended as first foods, progressing then to vegetables, fruits, beans, lentils, eggs, and more.

What I like about baby-led weaning

I like the fact that baby is ultimately in control of how much he or she eats right from the very start, which seems to be in accordance to what childhood feeding expert Ellyn Satter teaches about the Division Of Responsibility Of Feeding (parents are in charge of the what's, when's, where's of feeding and kids are in charge of whether and how much the eat) which I absolutely love. It also seems like less work for the parents, which as a second-time mom, seems appealing. Just think- no pureeing, no ice cube trays, no separate meals and no defrosting little cubes of baby food. You feed baby exactly what you and the rest of the family is eating. 

What I like about spoon feeding

Spoon feeding allows a gentle and slow transition into the world of solids and although it may be a little more work, it is (for many) less nerve wracking and less stressful. Iron is such an important nutrient for babies 6 months and older (babies this age are prone to iron-deficiency anemia), and spoon feeding makes it easier to get those high iron foods into baby earlier (pureed meats, iron-fortified cereals etc.). Some parents who follow BLW would argue that their baby gobbled up whole t-bone steaks at 6 months, but I'm skeptical about this, considering the fact that my son gagged on infant cereal at 6 months.

Although some hardcore BLWers would disagree (likely using anecdotal evidence), I believe that spoon feeding may be a safer approach overall. I think that some, too quickly, dismiss the possibility of choking with BLW, saying that babies will gag, not choke. Regardless of this, knowing myself and how I reacted to my baby gagging on purees, I probably wouldn't fair well if my daughter started gagging on a hunk of meat. I think too that it really depends on the individual baby, as they all develop oral-motor skills at different rates. 

Go with what feels right

Ultimately, I think that both methods can work really well—I don't think one is superior to another and I certainly don't think that you should be made to feel guilty about the way you choose to introduce solids. What is most important is that you, as the parent, are comfortable with it and are in tune with your baby. Both methods can be "baby-led" as long as you watch your baby carefully, forget the "airplane" trick and honour your babies hunger and fullness cues. And let's face it, all of our kids will learn how to self feed within the first year or so. Whether we encourage this at 6 months or 9 months, in my mind, really doesn't make a huge difference.

I personally plan on using a combination of both methods. Every baby develops at a slightly different rate, so perhaps my daughter will gravitate more towards finger foods than purees, or vice versa. If there's one thing that I've learned from being a Mom, it's to not plan too much or assume that things are going to go a certain way. Finger foods or mush, introducing solids should be fun and relatively stress-free. Try not to be influenced too much one way or the other, but instead go with what feels right for you and your baby.