Is Baby-Led Weaning A Safe Way to Feed Your Infant?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

When a few of my new-mom friends started asking me about introducing solid foods and if I had done baby-led weaning, I gave them a blank stare. When I hear the word “weaning,” I think about transitioning a baby from breast to bottle, or formula to whole milk. But it turns out baby-led weaning is a term that describes a way to introduce solid foods to babies, and it skips the puree or mushy-food phase.

I had never heard of this concept when my daughter was an infant, and I had already begun introducing food to my son when a few friends started asking me about it. So I talked with Penny Glass, PhD, who directs the Child Development Program and is an expert on infant and child development, to get her opinion on introducing new foods to babies.

When should babies begin eating food?
 
“Most pediatricians say to wait until babies are 6 months,” says Dr. Glass. If a baby was born prematurely, parents should factor in their development. The main reason that babies need more than breast milk at that age is because they need more iron, says Dr. Glass.

Are there any benefits to starting babies on purees?
 
The idea of exposing babies to different flavors of foods and aromas is a positive one and can help whet their appetites, says Dr. Glass. And it’s typical for babies to have to try something 17 times before they like it, says Dr. Glass.

When should babies start feeding themselves?
 
There is no right age, but it’s really when babies have the ability to do so. Look for developed oromotor skills, like gripping, and body tone before letting babies feed, says Dr. Glass. She cautions against putting unnecessary pressure on your baby to get them to feed themselves.

“Americans in particular are very strong about wanting their babies to be independent and feeding early, but this can cause some trouble,” says Dr. Glass.

When babies are very young, they aren’t very good at feeding themselves, so they may become frustrated because they are still hungry, but are not able to eat enough. Dr. Glass suggests that parents start by offering bites from a spoon and once the baby has had a few bites, parents can let the baby “practice” on their own.

Also, as they get older, Dr. Glass says babies may decide to select certain foods or not want to try a variety, which may cause tension and frustration at the dinner table.

Is choking a concern with baby-led weaning?
 
Proponents of baby-led weaning say that babies’ gag reflexes prevent them from choking. But Dr. Glass says that some may have stronger responses and throw up, which causes an unpleasant experience for both the baby and caregivers. A common reaction is for parents to panic when a baby is choking, and it can create a bad cycle that leads to unpleasant mealtimes, says Dr. Glass.

Additionally, even at a young age, babies are paying attention to parents’ reactions. If a parent looks panicked, Dr. Glass says a baby can change their behavior based on a parent’s reaction.

Do you see any benefits to baby-led weaning?
 
“Anything that brings a parent to the table with their baby has some merit,” says Dr. Glass.  Babies learn by watching, so they watch parents chew and socialize. It’s also a great way to expose babies to new foods. Exploring new flavors and “gumming” foods is a very positive and appropriate experience.

Why is eating together so important?

Around 6-9 months of age, babies become intent on watching and learning from people, and this includes how people talk and eat. Coming to the table together is a great social and language learning opportunity.

Dr. Glass says the focus should be on keeping meals as pleasant and relaxed as possible – no matter the method parents choose to feed their children. Individual differences and cultures should be appreciated.

One tip Dr. Glass offered is one that she practiced with her own children: have breakfast together.  As her children got older, she found they were rushed in the mornings before hurrying off in several different directions. Her solution was to wake up a few minutes earlier so she could have breakfast every morning with her children.

“It’s important to make emotional contact before we rush off,” says Dr. Glass. “It’s an incredible experience for a child – and a parent – to make a connection before the day really gets started.”


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