Most babies will be ready to start experimenting with solid foods from around six months of age. Parents of babies who were born preterm (i.e. before 37 weeks of pregnancy), or who have any medical condition which might affect their ability to handle food safely or to digest a range of foods, are advised to discuss with their health advisers when they should start to offer their baby solid foods, and before deciding to use baby led weaning (BLW) as the only method.
Normal, healthy breastfed babies appear to be quite capable, with the right sort of support from their parents, of managing their own introduction to solid foods. However, although it is the self-feeding which characterises breastfeeding that underpins the theory of baby-led weaning, many parents whose babies were bottle-fed have found that this method works equally well for them. The only significant difference is the need to ensure that the baby is offered drinks other than milk.
It appears that a baby's general development keeps pace with the development of his ability to manage food in his mouth, and to digest it. A baby who is struggling to get food into his mouth is probably not quite ready to eat it. It is important to resist the temptation to 'help' the baby in these circumstances since his own developmental abilities are what ensure that the transition to solid foods takes place at the right pace for him, while keeping the risk of choking to a minimum.
Tipping a baby backwards or lying him down to feed him solid foods is dangerous. A baby who is handling food should always be supported in an upright position. This ensures that food that he is not yet able to swallow, or does not wish to swallow, will fall forward out of his mouth.
Adopting a baby-led approach doesn't mean abandoning all the common sense rules of safety. While it is very unlikely that a young baby would succeed in picking up a peanut, for example, accidents can and will happen on rare occasions – however the baby is fed. The normal rules of safety while eating and playing should there be adhered to when the transition to solid foods is baby-led.
Babies who are allowed to feed themselves seem to accept a wide range of foods. This is probably because they have more than just the flavour of the food to focus on – they are experiencing texture, colour, size and shape as well. In addition, giving babies foods separately, or in a way which enables them to separate them for themselves, enables them to learn about a range of different flavours and textures. And allowing them to leave anything they appear not to like will encourage them to be prepared to try new things.
General principles of good nutrition for children apply equally to young babies who are managing their own introduction to solid foods. Thus, 'fast foods' and foods with added sugar and salt should be avoided. However, once a baby is over six months old there is no need (unless there is a family history of allergy or a known or suspected digestive disorder) to otherwise restrict the foods that the baby can be offered. Fruit and vegetables are ideal, with harder foods cooked lightly so that they are soft enough to be chewed. At first, meat is best offered as a large piece, to be explored and sucked; once the baby can manage to pick up and release fistfuls of food, minced meat works well. (Note: babies do not need teeth to bite and chew – gums do very well!)
The fat content of breastmilk increases during a feed. A breastfed baby recognises this change and uses it to control his fluid intake. If he wants a drink, he will tend to feed for a short time, perhaps from both breasts, whereas if he is hungry he will feed for longer. This is why breastfed babies who are allowed to feed whenever they want for as long as they want do not need any other drinks, even in hot weather.
This principle can work throughout the period of transition to family foods if the baby continues to be allowed to breastfeed 'on demand'. A cup of water can be offered with meals as part of the opportunity for exploration but there is no need to be concerned if he doesn't want to drink any.
Babies who are formula-fed need a slightly different approach, since formula has the same consistency throughout the feed and is therefore less thirst-quenching. Offering water at regular intervals once the baby is eating small quantities of food is all that is needed to ensure a sufficient fluid intake.
Continuing to give milk feeds 'on demand' during the weaning period will have the added advantage of allowing the baby to decide how and when to cut down his milk intake. As he eats more at shared mealtimes, so he will 'forget' to ask for some of his milk feeds, or will take less at each feed. There is no need for his mother to make these decisions for him.
-DO ensure that your baby is supported in an upright position while he is experimenting with food. In the early days you can sit him on your lap, facing the table. Once he is beginning to show skill at picking food up he will almost certainly be mature enough to sit, with minimal support, in a high chair.
-DO start by offering foods that are baby-fist-sized, preferably chip-shaped (i.e., with a 'handle'). As far as possible, and provided they are suitable, offer him the same foods that you are eating, so that he feels part of what is going on.
-DO offer a variety of foods. There is no need to limit your baby's experience with food any more than you do with toys.
-DON'T hurry your baby. Allow him to direct the pace of what he is doing. In particular, don't be tempted to 'help' him by putting things in his mouth for him.
-DON'T expect your baby to eat any food on the first few occasions. Once he has discovered that these new toys taste nice, he will begin to chew and, later, to swallow.
-DON'T offer 'fast' foods, ready meals or foods that have added salt or sugar.
-DO be prepared for the mess! A clean plastic sheet on the floor under the high chair will protect your carpet and make clearing up easier. It will also enable you to give back foods that have been dropped, so that less is wasted. (You will be pleasantly surprised at how quickly your baby learns to eat with very little mess!)
-DO continue to allow your baby to breastfeed whenever he wants, for as long as he wants. Expect his breastfeedingfeeding pattern to change as he starts to eat more solid foods.
-If you have a family history of food intolerance, allergy or digestive problems, DO discuss this method of weaning with your health advisers before embarking on it.
-Finally, DO enjoy watching your baby learn about food – and develop his skills with his hands and mouth in the process!