Baby-Led Weaning vs. Spoon-Feeding

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Of all the waters I had to navigate during my daughter’s first year, figuring out what to feed her once she started solid foods was the trickiest. I wanted her to eat everything — her father and I are adventurous and voracious eaters—but I didn’t want to try too much too soon, lest I cause her to have an allergic reaction or choke. I saw pictures of my friend’s baby (who is one month younger than my own) inhaling scrambled eggs with smoked salmon and was jealous, but also confused. How did my friend know her baby was ready? How could I tell if my little girl was prepared to graduate from applesauce and carrot puree? So I followed the traditional path of spoon-feeding purees for a while, slowly graduating to foods with more texture as time went on, and letting her feed herself as she got older. But the baby-led weaning (BLW) movement, in which a baby starts with finger foods and skips those fruit and veggie purees altogether, is gaining steam.

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The Research

While the American Academy of Pediatrics stresses the importance of exposing babies to a wide variety of flavors and textures, they don’t specifically recommend letting babies feed themselves until 8 or 9 months of age. According to a 2012 study, “healthcare professionals had limited direct experience with BLW… Although they suggested a number of potential benefits of BLW (greater opportunity for shared family meal times, fewer mealtime battles, healthier eating behaviors, greater convenience and possible developmental advantages) most felt reluctant to recommend BLW because of their concern about the potential increased risk of choking.” (Watch a YouTube tutorial of the Heimlich Maneuver for infants.) 

Another study that compared baby-led weaning and traditional spoon-feeding found that the baby-led group showed a significant preference for carbohydrates, while spoon-fed babies preferred sweets. The study also found that spoon-fed babies had a higher incidence of obesity, which was said to have “implications for combating the well-documented rise of obesity in contemporary societies.”

Still, a team of researchers found that baby-led weaning isn’t right for all babies, and that it could lead to nutritional problems for babies who are relatively developmentally delayed. “Probably the most pragmatic approach would be to adopt what is good about BLW without going to extremes: promoting the use of self-feeding of finger foods and participation at family meals at an early stage, while recognizing the need to also co-feed with spoonable foods, at least in the early weeks.”

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What the Experts Say

Gill Rapley, co-author of the books “Baby-Led Weaning” and “The Baby-Led Weaning Cookbook,” told the New York Times; “[Babies] may occasionally gag a bit or cough and splutter, but that’s actually a baby’s way of triggering the anti-choking reflex, and it happens with purees, too. The real risk comes if parents try to hurry baby-led weaning and put chunks of food in a baby’s mouth for him.”

Ellen Townsend, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Nottingham in England, who led the study that found that spoon-fed babies might be more overweight, speculated to NPR: “Maybe with spoon feeding, if you’ve lovingly prepared a delicious portion, and you might want to get that portion into that child. There may be a temptation to try to get in an extra spoonful or two.”

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What Parents Say

"We didn’t know anything about baby-led weaning when we started, so we took the traditional route of rice cereal, then purées, then regular table food, and it worked for us. Our daughter is an awesome eater—everything from hummus to liver." — Brooke Glassberg, Metuchen, NJ

“I read a lot about baby-led weaning and loved the concept in theory, so at six months we tried it. But I was absolutely terrified by the way my son would so frequently gag, even on soft foods like avocados and bananas. The books and moms’ groups I consulted all said gagging is very normal when doing baby-led weaning, but I couldn’t enjoy my baby’s transition to solid food from the edge of my seat, constantly afraid he was choking. In the end, I gave up on baby-led weaning and stuck with purees, pouches, and net feeders for a few more months. When we tried again once he was a little older, he had no problem with picking up and chewing more solid foods, and almost never gags.” — Brooke McDonald, Hinsdale, IL

“Introducing solids was a daunting task for me for many reasons but the biggest two being: 1) I have a lifelong fear of having a baby choke on my watch 2) my brother passed away from severe food allergies that emerged when he was a baby. We started my son on single purées that I diligently kept track of on a pad of paper on our fridge. Introducing “lumps” and texture to the purées was a headache. I was so traumatized by my son’s gag reflex the first time I gave him quinoa that I thought for sure he’d be eating purées in college.  But by following Sam’s lead, we slowly moved on to eating peas and Cheerios and the rest is history.  I’m happy to say I now have a great eater who can take down three pancakes and a banana in one sitting!” — Amy Barton, Brooklyn, NY

The Bottom Line

There’s no right or wrong. While some research shows that baby-led weaning might lead to healthier eating habits and a lower incidence of obesity, healthcare professionals haven’t recommended it over spoon-feeding, and do warn of risk of choking. Just remember, no matter how your babies consume their first food, they’ll all be eating eventually. As writer Jessica Grose writes in Slate: “How the food gets into your child’s stomach should not be something up for major discussion among strangers, unless you’re shoving cheerios up his nose.”

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