Weaning: Spoon fed or baby led?

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What is the best way to wean your baby onto solid food?

Starting your baby onto solids is a big step, and one that we hear parents discussing a lot. There are loads of books, web pages and workshops dedicated to weaning your baby and like so many things related to parenting, it can generate much (heated) discussion about how to do it best.

The consensus at the moment is that weaning should begin at around 6 months old. Before this point, (and even after) babies get everything they need from milk. Behaviours like chewing their fists, grabbing at your food, waking in the night, and being hungry for milk are NORMAL and does not mean that they need weaning early.

Even when your baby begins eating solid food, they will still be getting the vast majority of their nutrients from milk, and it doesn’t really matter how much solid food actually goes down. They are just learning about food at this stage – it is a completely new experience for them and many babies don’t immediately take to food. Some babies just love their milk and aren’t really interested in food at all. My first baby LOVED food almost immediately at 6 months, (that’s him in the picture at 7 months,) and my second barely ate a bite of solid food until she was well over 9 months old. It has made no difference whatsoever to their eating ability now! A great phrase is, “Food is fun until they are one”. Which doesn’t mean food should stop being fun on their first birthday, but it’s a great mantra to bear in mind if your baby doesn’t seem to be eating much.

If you have allergies in your family, or are worried about giving your baby certain foods, check with your Health Visitor before you start weaning. It’s helpful to introduce potential allergens one at a time to be on the safe side, but do always seek professional advice.

What is Baby Led Weaning?

The term “baby led weaning” was coined by Gill Rapley, who has written a very popular and influential book on the subject. Essentially, what it means is that the parent does not spoon feed the child anything. The baby feeds themselves independently. You hand the baby the food and they eat it, or they don’t. So you don’t need to puree anything.

This way of feeding a baby can be a bit scary to an older generation who were taught to feed a baby mush, gradually making the food more and more textured, and slowly introducing finger foods. This is currently how the NHS recommends you should do it too.

The great thing about baby led weaning is you can just give the baby some of what you are eating (minus the salt) and let them have a go at it. There is a school of thought that doing this means that a baby will grow up to be a more adventurous eater, but my personal experience doesn’t bear this out. It is very common for toddlers to suddenly become extremely limited in the foods they will eat, however they were fed as a baby. In the picture above you can see Zac merrily tucking into some broccoli – when he turned one he went off all green food in a big way and still can’t bear it now at 8 years old. Yet as a baby he would eat anything and everything.

For me, this bears out the mantra “Food is fun until they are one.” A lot changes when a baby becomes a toddler, including their relationship with food. So please don’t feel bad if your previously adventurous baby becomes a very fussy toddler. (That’s a subject for another day!)

Back to baby led weaning. The challenge with following BLW is as a parent to not become obsessed about how much they are eating, whether they have had “enough”, and whether they are getting enough vital nutrients. If they are still having plenty of milk, growing well and doing plenty of business in their nappy, then they are most likely totally fine. It’s not a race to get your baby onto three square meals, and it shouldn’t be a stressful experience.

Stress around food

This is a big one for me personally. Like many of us I was brought up with the idea that if I eat everything on my plate I am a “good” girl, and as I result I am excellent at overriding my natural instinct that tells me when I have had enough. In fact, do I even have an instinct any more? I’m not sure. So much of our eating is driven around external cues: what time of day it is, whether there is food left on the plate, whether it’s a “special occasion” or a treat, if I’m on a diet, if I’m bored, if other people are eating, if I’m sad or tired. Have a think about why you eat.

I have vivid memories of my little sister being forced to eat when she didn’t want to, and being the “good girl” that I am I made sure I always ate everything up. As an adult I know I eat far too much and have far too much of an emotional relationship with food. It’s not just fuel for me.

One very good argument in favour of BLW is that in theory it sets your baby up to have a much better relationship with food – one where they control what they eat, rather than being so driven by external factors. If you think about it, when you spoon feed a baby, they don’t have an awful lot of say in the matter, and as the parent doing the spooning, you will be intending to get the baby to eat up everything in the bowl.

I can’t remember what is in the pot, but I know it’s not Flora!

Here’s an extract from Sarah Ockwell Smith’s blog on the subject:

“Why does it matter? Baby Led Weaning has many potential benefits, the most important to me is that it allows the baby to set the pace, to form a good relationship with food and to learn their satiety signals from the offset. They learn that food is fuel and may avoid issues with eating that contribute to obesity, thus possibly protecting against it.  ‘Doing a bit of both’ – giving finger foods whilst puree feeding “to at least get some food into the baby” goes against this and may unknowingly negatively influence the baby’s future eating habits in the pursuit of trying to do what’s best for the baby (by “getting food into them”). Being baby led really means the baby leads all of their weaning which means trusting that they will take all they need from solids and milk without offering ‘top up’ purees.”

Whether all this matters to you or not is going to be driven by your own history of eating. Everyone is different and has different priorities. I certainly have been guilty of trying to get my children to eat when they don’t want to, or to eat foods they don’t like. But I am more aware of the potential issues, and I stop short of the force feeding that our generation and older generations might have been subjected to.

So no more spoon feeding?

It’s up to you. Some parents really genuinely cannot handle the mess of baby led weaning. That’s fine. I mean, look at him! After all, many millions of people have been brought up being spoon fed and they aren’t all obese or have disordered eating. I think it’s important to be realistic.

Sometimes a pouch or a jar is fine, but in my opinion the main thing is to get real, healthy food into our babies, rather than setting them up with a taste for highly sweetened, bland flavours. Virtually all children prefer sweet and bland food as that is what we have evolved to prefer. So trying to ensure that they get a taste for vegetables and homemade “proper” food has got to be a good thing, even if they become super fussy later on. Try and ensure they get used to drinking water rather than juice and your dentist will love you.

If you are busy and don’t have the time or the inclination to make loads of purees your baby will smear on their face and chuck on the floor, then giving them finger foods and bits of your dinner is definitely the lower effort option. They probably aren’t going to eat much of it anyway. You don’t have to be a top chef and you may find that by trying to introduce different fruits and vegetables to your baby means that you eat healthier too, after all, you’ve got to do something with the rest of that broccoli and sweet potato!

Eating should be a pleasurable experience, not a stressful one. Whether you opt for purees, finger foods, or a mix of both, ensure that you follow your baby’s lead and if they want a go with the spoon, let them. Plastic sheeting is your friend!

I think one thing that we can all agree on is that you shouldn’t wean your baby onto beer…!

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