Babies can do so much more than we give them credit for, like feeding themselves! If you’re considering foregoing traditional spoon-feeding and giving baby-led weaning a whirl, here are four things your baby should be able to do before starting baby-led weaning.
1. They should be at or around the 6-month mark
When your baby is approaching the 6-month mark and starting to show the signs of readiness to eat, it’s time to begin the transition to solid foods. But babies don’t wake up on their 6-month mark and magically know how to eat, the weaning period is their time to practice learning how to eat.
If you’re getting pressure to start solid foods with your baby before 6 months, tune that noise out! Breastmilk and/or formula is sufficient to meet your baby’s nutrition needs up until 6 months of age. And if your baby was born prematurely, use their 6 month adjusted age to work out when to start solids.
For example, I had quadruplets who were born at 34 weeks (6 weeks early). I waited until they were 6 months + 6 weeks (so 7.5 months old) before we attempted anything except breastmilk and/or formula.
You might be hearing, “Oh your baby should start solids early because your baby is small and needs to catch-up in weight” or, “Well your baby is big so your baby needs to start solid foods early” but please know that both of these recommendations are inaccurate. Early introduction of solid foods prior to 6 months of age is unnecessary and can be dangerous.
2. They should be able to sit up on their own
Not all babies are ready to start solid foods right at the 6-month mark. One of the most important signs of readiness to feed is the ability for your baby to be sitting on their own relatively unassisted and exert head control. These abilities (alongside the other signs of readiness to feed) indicates that your baby has the core strength required to facilitate a safe swallow. Most babies will be sitting on their own somewhere around 6 or 7 months.
When it comes to feeding your baby, they should only eat food when seated safely in a high chair with their feet resting flat on a footrest. If your little one is slumping over during feeding or has dangling feet, this can increase the likelihood or aspiration or choking, especially early on in feeding.
If your little one is still face-planting or not sitting on their own yet, wait a week and check back. A week or 2 (…or 3) may not seem like a lot to you or me, but to a rapidly developing baby - a lot can change in a short period of time. They’ll get there!
Say it with me: we don’t feed floppy babies!
3. They should stop reflexively pushing everything out of their mouth
From the earliest stages of infancy your baby has had an extrusion reflux - or tongue thrust reflex. This is a protective mechanism that prevents anything except breastmilk and/or formula from entering baby’s airway and potentially choking them.
As your baby’s body is getting ready to begin the transition to solid foods, that tongue thrust reflex will become less pronounced. It doesn’t totally disappear all at once, and you can expect a little bit of food to be returned to you during the earliest days of baby-led weaning.Because baby is learning all about this new experience, after all. But you’ll notice that with practice, your baby starts to use their tongue to move food around and this will eventually transition into actual chewing and swallowing.
Don’t worry if your little one doesn’t have teeth, either. Your baby doesn’t need teeth to begin solid foods. Babies can learn to manipulate food in their mouth and chew and swallow long before their teeth appear.
4. They should be showing interest in food
As your baby approaches the 6-month mark and starts showing the other signs of readiness to feed, they will probably also start to get really interested in your food. They’ll begin eye-balling your every meal and starting to make mouth movements and smacking noises while watching you eat.
Some parents notice their babies show interest in adults eating as early as 3 or 4 months old, but without the other signs of readiness that come around the 6-month mark, your baby won’t be ready for baby-led weaning just yet.
But you can involve your baby in meals and help get them ready for baby-led weaning even before they’re ready. Try by sitting your baby in the high chair, bringing your baby to the table with the rest of the family at mealtime, or letting your baby play with an empty BLW spoon at meals. You could even practice by letting them drinking small amounts of breastmilk and/or formula out of an open cup.
Katie Ferraro, MPH, RDN, CDE is an Associate Professor of Nutrition at the University of California San Francisco, a Registered Dietitian and mom of 7 specializing in baby-led weaning.