Feeding a baby or toddler can seem very overwhelming. There are so many routes to take, potential products to buy, things to consider. In a time when parents are bombarded with too much information, choosing the right approach for introducing solids may be more overwhelming than ever.
Our followers know that while we love the Baby-led Weaning (infant self-feeding) approach, we also support all families on their feeding journey and recognize that what works for some doesn’t work for all. Yes, we work with families who spoon-feed and love to help them make that a positive experience, too. No, we don't think that there's one "right" way to feed a baby. Ultimately, we want feeding to be a positive experience where the caregiver follows the baby’s lead. We also want the caregiver to have positive feelings about the feeding experience, since babies can pick up on anxiety surrounding mealtime.
Eventually, the goal for every baby (barring health or medical issues) is independent, safe self-feeding. This may happen at a different rate for each baby. We’ve seen some confusion about how long to spoon-feed, transitioning from spoon feeding to self-feeding, if food before one is even important, and other feeding fiction over the last few months in our Feeding Littles Group on Facebook. We want to set the record straight from a nutritional and developmental perspective on a few key feeding issues.
1. There are essentially two main approaches to infant feeding - Baby-led Weaning (infant self-feeding) and traditional feeding (sometimes referred to as Traditional Weaning). While the approaches seem different, the eventual goal for both BLW and traditional feeding is self-feeding all safe textures.
Baby-led Weaning is defined by babies feeding themselves whole foods (not exclusively purees) from the start. These foods are offered in the shape of a stick or strip because 6-month-olds usually have not developed a pincer grasp and cannot pick up a small piece of food. However, many parents are nervous about babies eating textures like avocado, banana, cooked sweet potato, or softly cooked chicken, so a modified approach may work better for these families. Offering pureed or mashed food on loaded NumNum GOOtensils (or dumping a puree on baby’s tray!) can be a good way to start letting your baby feed themself a texture that makes you feel more comfortable. Once you see them maneuver the food in their mouth, you may be willing to offer them other foods. Learn more about smart spoon-feeding here.
2. Anything that’s not breast milk or formula is considered a “solid” or a “complementary food,” and we don’t recommend offering these foods until baby is ready.
Some parents confuse the guidance on offering complementary foods because they assume that pureed food is not a “solid.” Recommendations to wait until around 6 months for solids apply to feeding your baby any type of food that isn’t breast milk or formula. In assessing readiness, keep in mind that sitting with minimal assistance is key. For most babies, this is around 6ish months. We talk more about readiness for solid foods in our online Infant Course.
3. Food before one is for much more than fun.
Introducing food in the second half of infancy is extremely important for a variety of reasons. The term “food before one is just for fun” sounds catchy and has gained in popularity since the BLW movement has gained momentum, but the unfortunate reality of this phrase is that some parents take it to mean that food has no importance before one and breast milk or formula is all a baby needs. Some parenting circles consider it best to not give baby any food except breast milk until 1, which can set baby up for a host of developmental, allergenic and nutritional issues.
Let's be clear: the original intent of this phrase is great! Don't stress about the quantity of food your baby eats when you serve it to them, especially in the first few months. Breast milk or formula fulfill the majority of baby’s nutritional needs in infancy. We want to see a trend in improvement of your baby's self-feeding skills.
While their milk provides most of their nutrition, at around 6 months of age babies need iron and zinc from sources other than milk. Additionally, allergenic foods are important to introduce by around 6 months, even if your child has a higher allergy risk (talk to your doc if they do). If you skip offering food until 1 year of age, you may potentially miss a key allergen window.
Babies who don’t have exposure to various food textures by around 9 months might have an increased risk of feeding issues later in life. They also miss exposure to a variety of flavors and may be less likely to accept strong flavors as they get older. We work with toddlers who have struggled to accept new textures and flavors for a variety of reasons, including lack of exposure to any food in infancy, and it can be tough on the entire family. Of course, sometimes kiddos end up in feeding therapy or nutritional counseling for many reasons completely out of anyone's control. However, not offering any solid food to babies before one is something that concerns feeding professionals.
Above all of these reasons, we encourage parents to watch their baby’s cues and to follow their lead with feeding. Many babies are interested in food as they approach 6 months of age. Not letting them eat food of any kind until 12 months hinders their natural interest in the world around them and doesn’t let them model what they see adults and other children do every day – eat food! They also miss out on the social and language-building element of eating together. Yes, we need to wait until baby is ready for food, but waiting much past 6-7 months doesn’t give your baby some sort of advantage (barring medical issues); it may prevent him from being the eater he’s meant to be.
This phrase may also be taken to mean that food introduction can be casual. We definitely agree with keeping mealtimes fun and low stress and not worrying if baby misses a solid food meal due to teething or illness. Just remember that exposure matters - babies who get more practice with food are generally more skilled eaters.
4. Make sure baby can pick up the size food you offer.
This is especially important in Baby-led Weaning, where baby feeds themself from the start. Since 6-month-olds lack a pincer grasp, offering diced up food can make them frustrated. As your baby becomes a more skilled self-feeder, she can handle smaller pieces of food.
5. It’s important to follow your baby’s lead.
Some parents become frustrated when their spoon-fed baby starts grabbing for the spoon. Remember, we want all babies to eventually self-feed, so this is a great first step! Offer her the spoon (or a NumNum GOOtensil) loaded with some mashed or pureed food, and try some soft finger foods like avocado or banana spears, softly cooked chicken, or cooked sweet potato spears after that.
6. If you have decided to spoon feed your baby, we recommend encouraging independent self-feeding by no later than 14-16 months.
It's important for babies who are spoon-fed to eventually try finger foods and various soft textures. Spoon-feeding and using purees or lumpy food are simply a stepping-stone in traditional feeding; we don't stay there forever. Of course, if your baby has developmental or medical issues, this may not be the case and spoon-feeding may be required for longer.
Some parents love spoon-feeding their baby and enjoy making baby food. If that works for you, great! However, since spoon-feeding is meant to be temporary, parents won't always be feeding their baby with a spoon. Rather, the baby will transition to feeding themselves. That’s why technically you don’t “switch” from spoon-feeding to BLW – inherent in "traditional feeding" process is the idea that your baby eventually puts food in their own mouth with their hands or utensils after graduating from spoon-feeding.
Even though it’s a messy process, let your baby and toddler feed themselves a variety of foods. Regularly putting food in your toddler’s mouth and not letting them try it themself prevents them from developing the skills needed to self-feed. It can also lead to distracted eating or overeating, as well-meaning caregivers sometimes miss fullness cues and want to make a toddler finish a certain amount of food.
7. You do not have to wait 2 weeks between spoon feeding a baby and giving them finger foods.
The myth that there should be a “rest period” after stopping spoon feeding and before letting your baby self-feed whole foods has been flying around BLW boards for years, and it’s simply not backed by science. The theory behind this “guideline” is that when babies go from being fed a puree on a spoon to putting whole foods in their own mouths, they are more likely to choke because they will swallow the food without chewing. Well, babies new to BLW who have never had any kind of food may also try to swallow without chewing - that’s what they have the protective airway mechanism that is the gag reflex. In fact, Judy uses smart spoon feeding and self-feeding other textures within the same feeding therapy session all the time. The entire premise behind BLW is that it is safe for a baby to self-feed all textures; if this 2-week “rule” were true, it wouldn’t be deemed safe to let baby self-feed yogurt, hummus and guacamole while simultaneously letting them self-feed spears of avocado or cooked broccoli.
8. Gagging is a reflex and is your baby’s way of safely protecting their airway. However, gagging should improve over time.
For many babies new to self-feeding whole foods, gagging is a common thing. It should get better with practice. If your baby continues to gag very frequently after many weeks of practicing with real foods, talk to your pediatrician. Excessive gagging can lead to a feeding aversion.
9. A choking hazard is a choking hazard for all babies, independent of feeding style.
Just because a baby starts food utilizing BLW doesn’t mean they can “handle” choking hazards better than another baby. Cut grapes, cherries, and cherry tomatoes into quarters, and remove skin or small bones from meat. Avoid popcorn, chips, gum, and hard candy until age 4. Apples and raw carrots are unexpected choking hazards; we recommend softening both or shredding before serving (until age 4).
10.You do not have to offer only vegetables if you want to raise a veggie-lover.
Fruit won’t ruin your baby. Have you ever tasted breast milk or formula? Yup, very sweet. Your baby already knows what sweetness is, and starting on just vegetables hasn’t been shown to improve his diet quality long-term. What does help foster adventurous eating is exposure to ALL foods, with lots of repetition - some babies don't like foods until they've seen them 20-30 times!
You don’t have to offer fruits with every meal, but rather make sure to have at least one veggie and/or fruit at every meal for exposure to different flavors and nutrients. Don’t forget to pair the produce with a high-iron food like beef, salmon, chicken, whole grains, lentils or beans!
11. When your baby turns 1, you can offer a sugary cake – or not.
Do whatever makes you feel comfortable. (Judy and I gave our kiddos real cake, for what it’s worth…and Megan's first baby didn’t even touch hers!) If you want your baby to eat a Paleo cake, fruit, or a cupcake made with applesauce, great – just don’t overly stress yourself. Many, many babies don’t eat their first birthday cake – offering one is more for fun, tradition, even just photos. We've also seen funny soft taco, BBQ and watermelon first birthday smash photos that look just as fun if you want to try something unique. Read more about our philosophy on this here.
If your baby eats some cake, he will be OK. Remember that all foods fit, and we need to teach our kiddos that it’s not a big deal to have some cake eventually. Focus on the fact that you survived your first year with baby! That calls for some cake (or champagne!) for you!