What is Baby Led Feeding?
There are so many terms thrown around in the internet world that are used interchangeably to describe the process of moving your baby onto food that’s not breastmilk or formula. We hear about infant weaning, baby led weaning, infant self-feeding, puree feeding, introducing solids…and the list goes on.
And it can get pretty confusing trying to establish the difference between each one. In fact, some terms are really just describing the same thing, while other are describing completely different methods of introducing any non-milk food to your baby. You can read about the differences between puree feeding and baby led weaning here.
Without trying to complicate the situation, I want to propose a new term that I live and breathe by. It’s a term that, in my opinion, can and should be embraced by every parent out there, and can be used to guide your feeding decisions with your child – no matter which method you choose.
And that term is Baby Led Feeding.
Let’s define it.
What is Baby Led Feeding?
Baby led feeding is a practice that honours your baby’s role in feeding, making them an active participant and star player in the decision making process. Our baby’s wishes are reciprocated with an appropriate response from us, the parent, that respects where they are in the feeding process, while gently nudging them along to progression.
So, 1) baby is an active participant and decision maker and 2) parent’s are respecting baby’s decision and cues and 3) parents are nudging babies along the texture timeline to advance in feeding.
Something very important to note is, no matter whether you are starting your baby off with purees or on whole foods, you can incorporate baby led feeding practices either way! This is the beauty of it. It’s not about whether purees or whole foods and self-feeding are better for your baby (assuming you do each correctly). It’s about what your baby is ready for, where their skills are, and how you can support them either way to achieve success in feeding. I will be doing a blog post next week on why most times, I advocate for a mixed approach in the first month or two of starting solids, so stay tuned for that.
Let’s break down the definition of Baby Led Feeding even further, shall we?
Letting your baby lead the feeding process
This means that we, as parents, remove any expectations of how things “should” go in feeding and we let baby lead everything from the pace of the meal, the amount eaten, to the style of feeding for that specific meal. We, as parents (or caregivers), are not forcing a certain feeding approach, or pushing for a certain quantity to be eaten at a specific pace. There is no “right” or “wrong” feeding approach as long as you have the goal of independently eating of a variety of textures by 10 months – 1 year of age.
For example – you may have the idea that you want to start your baby off strictly with purees, but quickly find out your baby is looking to exert their independence and self-feed right from the beginning! In this case, we would want take our baby’s lead and let them explore finger foods as much as possible to support their curiosity and advanced form of eating. They know their bodies and their skills and will do what is right for them! Or conversely, you may have the vision of only doing baby led weaning and have shunned purees, only to see that your baby is not ready to eat finger foods on their own yet. They may be completely ready to start on solids, may show lots of interest in food, but just don’t really get how finger foods work yet (maybe for months!). That’s ok – begin with the purees! Every baby is completely different and we need to go with what our baby is telling us is right for them at that time.
Recognizing baby’s cues
One of the key things to note that is in order to execute baby led feeding, you have to learn how to recognize what your baby is telling you. Babies give out cues and signals all the time, especially when feeding, basically as a way of communicating to us and telling us when they are hungry or full, frustrated because something is too challenging, or bored when they need to be challenged with more advanced textures and feeding methods. In baby led feeding, we really respect and honour those cues and feed in a responsive way by encouraging our baby to eat without forcing them.
Example: Your baby may be happily taking to a spoon for weeks, and then all of a sudden refuse being spoon fed and want to grab the spoon themselves. Your job is to recognize what your baby is saying (I want to do it myself!) and let them explore and feed themselves (with their hand or a spoon) without trying to trick them into eating with games or by holding their hands down. The same goes for a baby who eats a couple bites at a meal and decides that they are done. They are turning their head away, perhaps purposely dropping or throwing finger foods, pursing their lips shut or getting fussy. Recognizing these signs as indications that our baby is full or just not interested in eating at this time is important in letting our baby lead based on their hunger and satiety cues (whether we think it’s enough food or not!).
Gently nudging babies along the texture timeline
In order for our babies to execute their role in guiding feeding sessions, we need to allow them to explore all kinds of textures for them to be able to let us know what they are ready for now and when they are ready to move on. It’s crucial that we are continually providing opportunities for baby to explore a variety of healthy food in a variety of textures – and then we let baby do the rest! So perhaps this means serving purees alongside a couple finger foods during the first few meals to see what your baby leans more towards. Then, once your baby has mastered a texture, continue to challenge them with something more difficult or different meal to meal!
Example: Your baby has mastered the texture of very soft, mushy purees or finger foods after a couple weeks and you see that he eats it with ease and that the need to chew is actually very minimal. This is where you can push him/her along with a slightly more advanced texture for them to learn and progress, without holding them back on too soft textures or on purees because it’s easier for us to deal with or because self-feeding is too messy.
As feeding guru Ellyn Satter says, go off what your baby can do – not what age they are or what others expect. As you can see, with baby led feeding, learning how to respond to these cues is a delicate balance between respecting where they are at the time, and gently challenging them by providing continual opportunities to practice with finger foods or more advanced texture. So in other words – parents have an active and responsive role in the feeding process too!
Ultimately (as mentioned before) some parents will choose the conventional/puree approach to starting solids and others want to go for Baby Led Weaning. Both approaches can work great but only when the parents are guided by the baby’s unique development and follow their lead. The ultimate goal is always to advance to self-feeding as soon as your baby is ready, which can be as early as 6 months old if we let them. But if that doesn’t work for you or your baby, know that an all-or-nothing approach is not needed.