Expert advice on this popular approach to introducing solids.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to anything in parenting, and this is especially true when it comes to feeding our little ones. When it’s time for baby to start exploring foods, for instance, spoon-feeding soft purees might be the most common way parents introduce solids, but it’s definitely not the only way go.

Skipping purees altogether is quite common in other countries and cultures, and this method has been steadily gaining traction here, too. More and more parents are turning to the “baby led” approach to weaning, introducing table foods right from the get-go.

Baby-Led Weaning (BLW) is hot a term right now, but what does it actually mean, and how do you actually do it? Annabel Karmel, a mother of three, a child feeding expert and the author of Baby-Led Weaning Recipe Book: 120 Recipes to Let Your Baby Take the Lead, tackles the most common questions parents have.

In a nutshell, what exactly is baby-led weaning? Why is it so popular?

The ethos behind baby-led weaning is that you bypass the more traditional puree stage of weaning, and instead offer your baby a variety of foods which she can pick up and eat herself - whether this is soft finger foods or small portions of family meals, it is about allowing her to decide what, how much, and how quickly to eat.

A lot of families are keen on adopting the baby-led weaning approach as, put simply; it is less time spent mashing and pureeing! Baby-led weaning encourages your baby to join the dinner table and experiment with meals the whole family are enjoying (albeit without added sugar or salt). This method is thought to encourage the development of their social skills. Mealtimes suddenly become more than being just about food and there is the view that, as a result, your baby will go on to develop healthy eating habits for life.

What are the benefits to BLW rather than feeding purees?

There is the belief that baby-led weaning can help with appetite control. Self-feeding helps them learn their hunger and fullness cues as she will stop eating when she is full and will be less likely to overeat if she is allowed to choose what she eats (from a range of nutritious foods), eat at her own pace and decide when she’s had enough.

There has also been some research done which found that babies who are offered a limited variety of foods could develop fussiness, whereas babies given the opportunity to explore a wide range of foods for themselves tend to accept new foods more willingly.

We all know that babies are naturally inquisitive – they are programmed to experiment and explore, it’s how they learn. Self-feeding encourages hand-eye coordination and regularly handling foods improves their dexterity. And, by encouraging your baby to feed themselves it will give them the confidence in their own abilities.

For babies, play is about learning, and they can learn a lot from handling food; from finding out how to hold something with or without dropping it, to getting to grips with different shapes, sizes, weights, tastes and textures and even learning what food sounds like when they throw it on the floor! Self-feeding involves all of the senses and can help babies to understand the world around them.

Can you do purees and BLW?

Yes absolutely! There is no right or wrong to weaning. Some babies thrive on purees, others on finger foods and yet some on both. Instead of committing to a certain feeding method, it’s ok to be flexible in your approach and to follow your intuition and your baby's developmental signs.

Sometimes parents think that baby-led weaning is an all-or-nothing method but you can choose to feed your baby soft finger foods and small portions of family meals alongside spoon-feeding purees. It’s all about what fits in with your routine and most importantly that both you and your baby feel content and comfortable.

Combining both methods is a popular option and one that many parents are finding the most realistic to adopt. I think a flexible approach is particularly significant to consider for those with babies whose motor skills are slower to develop, as they will not be able to self-feed useful amounts of food until they are much older than six months. And this could be problematic as once babies get to six months they need essential nutrients such as iron and omega 3s which cannot be fully gained from breast or formula milk alone. This is where some form of pureeing or mashing of nutrient-rich food such as chicken, meat and oily fish becomes important.

How do you know if baby is ready for self-feeding?

Each and every baby is different so it is important to follow their lead and only start when they are developmentally ready. Many babies take to self-feeding early and easily, however, you need to be aware that you can’t start baby-led weaning before six months. Prior to this, babies tend not to have developed the hand-to-eye coordination needed for baby-led weaning, which means they won’t physically be able pick up the food and get it towards their mouth. So it’s not an option if your baby is ready to wean early and in this case, purees or well-mashed food are an obvious bridge between milk and solid foods.

From six months, there are some key tell-tale signs that indicate your baby is ready to start feeding herself:

-She can sit up unassisted

-She has lost the tongue-thrust reflex (automatically pushing solids out of her mouth with her tongue)

-She has developed sufficient hand-to-eye coordination to pick up food and put it in her mouth

-She is able to chew, even if she has few or no teeth

What if baby has no teeth?

Babies actually don’t need teeth to chew – their teeth are sitting under their gums and these gums are very hard, and are capable of managing all sorts of textures. So, it is less about her having teeth and more about whether she is able to chew, along with other key signs that your baby is ready (as mentioned above).

Many parents are worried about choking. What do you tell them?

Choking is a question I get asked about all the time and it’s understandable that parents worry about this. My main piece of advice would be to follow your baby’s lead - their own developmental abilities are what ensure that the transition to solid foods takes place at the right time for her. Going at your baby’s own pace will significantly reduce the risk of choking.

It’s important to note that however your baby is fed, they shouldn’t be left alone while eating, and they must always be supported in an upright position. I also encourage new parents to become familiar with first aid procedures.

Avoid these foods that could cause choking

-Whole grapes

-Whole cherry tomatoes

-Whole or chopped nuts

-Fruits with stones such as cherries

-Bony fish (always check thoroughly for bones first)

Remember that babies have a tendency to store food in their mouth for some time so just check they’re not storing any spare food reserves!

What if baby gags?

Gagging is very different to choking and in fact very normal and to be expected. Gagging is your baby’s own safety mechanism that prevents choking by pushing food away from the airway if it is too big to be swallowed. The gag reflex in babies is triggered towards the front of the tongue (unlike adults where this is much further back). All babies will gag while they master the skill of eating.

Foods such as melt-in-mouth puff snacks can be good as they are helpful for babies to learn hand-to-eye coordination and self-feeding without needing to deal with pieces of food that require chewing, which could trigger a gag.

You can then gradually progress this by offering soft sticks or batons of steamed carrot or sweet potato for example. She can control how far she pushes these into her mouth and the more she practices the more the gag reflex will move to the back of the mouth. Practice makes perfect!

What are some of the best foods to start with? Are there any to avoid?

Soft finger foods such as steamed carrot and broccoli, wedges of mango and banana slices are great from 6 months as they help your baby learn to chew and swallow when their reflex is safely close to the front of the mouth.

Babies around 6 months tend to use their whole hand to pick things up so avoid making the pieces too wide. Fairly long pieces stand a better chance of being picked up. I would suggest cutting food into 2-inch sticks so that half is held in a baby’s hand and the other half sticks out.

These are some great first foods to get started with baby-led weaning:

-Batons of banana, avocado, pear and mango

-Steamed carrot and broccoli (they can hold the stem)

-Wedges of roasted sweet potato or butternut squash

-Cubes or fingers of bread or pitta

-Soft pasteurized cheeses cut into chunks

-Cooked eggs, cut in half

-Pieces of cooked fish such as salmon and chicken (the dark meat is extra nutritious)

-Mini portions of a family meal – just keep a close eye on potential allergens and omit the addition of salt and sugar.

Don’t worry about how much or how little your baby eats at the beginning; the best thing you can do is serve a variety of tastes and textures and as many different nutritious foods.

There are some foods to leave off the menu for babies under 12 months:

-Honey

-Mould-ripened soft cheeses

-Added salt and sugar

-Paté

-Whole cow’s milk (or goat’s/sheep’s milk) as a main drink. You can introduce a little into your baby’s foods from six months, once she’s started on solid

-Shark, swordfish or marlin (due to high mercury levels)

-High choking-risk foods like whole grapes and whole/chopped nuts (although nut butters can be given at six months)

-Stimulants such as chocolate or sugar

-Unhealthy and processed foods such as battered foods, sugary breakfast cereals, chips, and other foods that contain sugar

-Caffeinated drinks such as tea, coffee, hot chocolate and cola

How did you come up with the recipes in your new book? Do you have a favorite?

I like to look at recipes that have worked really well previously and adapt these to create a twist on a signature. For example, the Mini Burgers contain grated apple which was my secret ingredient in getting my fussy eating son Nicholas to eat chicken for the first time. It’s adds a subtle hint of natural sweetness which can encourage babies to give all-important iron-rich meat a try. I also love the Chicken, Cherry Tomato & Sweetcorn Quesadillas. The whole family will adore these and they are perfect if you want to rustle up a tasty and nutritious meal in a flash!