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Baby-led weaning

Baby-led weaning

Since the government changed its advice to start weaning babies at six months a movement to cut out the purees phase and move straight to lumpy food is gathering pace. Find out what it's all about and how to wean the baby-led way!

Jennie Gilhespy has just started weaning her six-month-old daughter, Leonie, onto solids. But unlike most mums, Jennie hasn't been offering Leonie spoonfuls of baby rice or fruit puree. Instead, Leonie's been tucking into pasta shapes, chunks of banana and sticks of cooked veg, all served up on her highchair tray so that she can help herself to as little or as much as she likes.

Jennie is using a method of weaning known as baby-led weaning. "When I was pregnant with Leonie I had lunch with a friend and I was amazed to see her baby happily eating cherry tomatoes," says Jennie, a social worker from Liverpool, who is also mum to Ethan, four. "She told me she was doing baby-led weaning and I couldn't wait to try it with my own baby."

"When Leonie got to six months I started offering her food from my plate and she really went for it. Now I just put bits of food - bananas, nectarines, broccoli, pitta bread - on her highchair tray and she helps herself. It's quite messy and it takes a while, but at least I can sit and eat my meal at the same time."

Baby-led weaning is an approach to weaning that was first advocated by Gill Rapley, an experienced health visitor and midwife, back in 2006. Instead of offering babies purees as a first food at 6 months, Gill suggested, we should simply offer them a range of healthy variety of finger foods and, provided he is sitting up straight, and you are with him, you can leave him to feed himself with his hands. As long as there are no known allergies in the family, you can give your child pretty much anything, except for whole nuts if your child is under five. This approach takes a leap of faith for many parents, but the benefits are great.

One reason is that most of us are weaning our babies a little later these days. When we weaned our babies at four months, we needed to offer them purees because, at that age, they still can't hold their heads up consistently or make the "munching" movements needed to eat solid foods.

However, most of us are now weaning our babies at six months, and six-month-olds can sit up straight in a highchair, reach out and grasp objects with their hands and also "munch" on solids foods (actual chewing movements kick in a little later at around seven or eight months). In other words they have all the skills they need to feed themselves.


According to Gill Rapley, allowing babies to feed themselves from the word go means they are less likely to have problems with "lumps" later on (lots of babies find the transition from smooth purees to lumpier foods tricky). It also allows babies to eat with the family rather having separate meals prepared for them.

Parents who've tried baby-led weaning claim it helps to avoid picky eating as well. "Charlie eats anything that's put in front of him - it's fantastic," says Ali Coton, a project manager from south London and mum to 18-month-old Charlie. "I think it's because he never had to make the move from purees to lumpy foods. He was straight onto normal foods and I've just added to what he has as we've gone along."

Then, of course, there's the convenience - no purees means no need for food processors, jars, spoons, bowls or ice cube trays. "When I went out with friends, they'd all be busy spooning mush into their babies mouths while Charlie and I sat there enjoying our meals. It definitely appeals to the slummy mummy!" says Ali.

One of the main drawbacks with baby-led weaning is that it's messy. Chances are that much of what you offer your baby to begin with will end up on the floor once it's been thoroughly squidged, squeezed and gummed. Although you won't have the inconvenience of preparing purees, you will need to allow your baby plenty of time to eat. It'll be a little while before she masters the art of grasping foods, moving them to her mouth and chewing them efficiently.

Some health professionals also question whether babies who feed themselves get as many nutrients as babies fed on purees. "Make sure that you are giving your baby a good range of foods ," says Maggie Fisher, a health visitor from Hampshire. "At six months, the iron reserves your baby was born with are starting to run out, so it's important to offer her plenty of iron-rich foods, such as red meat, slices of well-cooked egg, mini Weetabix, fish (check for bones first), baked beans and other pulses."

* Do not start before your child is six months old. Your baby's neck muscles need to be strong enough to allow him to sit upright properly and he needs to have the reflexes and coordination to grasp objects in his fists.
*Make sure you follow government guidelines about which foods are safe for your baby's age and which aren't. 
* Avoid foods that are high in salt and sugar. 
* Never leave your baby to eat unsupervised. 
* Try to eat with your baby - babies learn by imitation and she'll quickly pick up tips from you. 
* Offer your baby foods that are easy to handle, such a sticks of cooked carrot or bread soldiers.
* Be prepared for mess! A coverall bib and a splatter mat are usually a must for all baby-led weaners. 
* Make sure you give your baby plenty of time to eat - she's still learning new skills after all. 
*You don't need to offer cutlery until around nine months when your baby has become competent at feeding herself and physically mature enough to handle a spoon and get it in her mouth!
* Wondering if you should cook fruit and veg? Read more here.


For 6 month-olds: Breakfasts|Savouries|Puds
For 8 month-olds: Breakfasts|Savouries|Puds

While babies often gag on foods, they very rarely choke. Advocates of baby-led weaning claim that choking is actually more likely when babies are fed from a spoon because the sucking motion they use to remove food from the spoon moves food straight to the back of the throat, you do not need to offer cutlery until your baby is around nine months by which time she is physically mature enough to handle one and get it in her mouth. When babies feeds themselves, it's argued, they are less likely to choke because they have complete control over what they put into their mouths and how quickly they eat it. Even so, it's important to stay with your baby while she's eating as a precaution and ensure that she is sitting up straight.

Read more about whether to cook fruit and vegetables for your baby.

Although baby-led weaning is very popular among some parents, very little research has been done on it and government guidelines still recommend that parents start their babies off on purees. "As health professionals we have to be guided by the Department of Health," says Maggie Fisher. "Having said that I have great sympathy for baby-led weaning and many parents seem to do it quite naturally anyway. Maybe it's time to start rethinking the advice we are giving."

Baby-led weaning: Helping your baby love good food by Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett (Vermilion, £9.99) is available in November 2008.


See baby-led weaning in this Youtube video. Read a review here.

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