By Jen Garcin
Starting your little one on solids is such an exciting time, but it can also feel stressful. There are endless opinions out there about everything baby related, and how to feed your baby is no exception. All of this advice can also be confusing as there isn’t even a consensus among doctors as to whether one approach is better or more effective than another. Some pediatricians recommend starting with purées when baby is around 4 months, while other pediatricians recommend waiting until babies turn 6 months and meet all signs of readiness. The good news is that there’s good evidence pointing in both directions, so you really can’t go wrong either way. If one method doesn’t end up working for your kiddo, there are others to try.
The goal of this post is to get all the research onto one page: evidence, pros and cons, resources, and explanations of baby-led weaning, traditional weaning, and a combination of both—so that you can feel empowered to make the choice that is right for you and your family.
The term “weaning” in this context refers to babies eating solid foods to complement their formula or breastmilk. This is a term commonly used in other countries to describe starting solids, but not so much in the US. The purpose of weaning is simply for babies to learn how to eat.
Traditional weaning typically starts around 4 months when baby can control their own head and neck. In traditional weaning, babies are spoon fed purées by a caregiver.
If you check out the links below, you will find that there is evidence that introducing foods between 4 and 6 months—particularly allergens—can help prevent against future food allergies.
Between 6 and 8 months, babies should be transitioning to finger foods. Purées can still be part of their diet—yogurt, mashed potatoes, and creamed spinach are all foods your little one will likely eat their whole life.
Pros: With traditional weaning, you know exactly how much your baby is actually consuming, and therefore you can ensure they’re getting a lot of iron. Iron is important around this age, especially if baby is exclusively breastfed. Traditional weaning is also far less messy, and it’s super easy to bring jars and pouches of purées out and about with you.
Cons: If you need to make your own food, preparing purées can be very time consuming. Babies may not like to be spoon fed, and it makes it much harder to enjoy mealtime together with your little one because your hands are full.
Baby-led weaning (BLW) requires that you wait until baby is at least 6 months and has hit all the signs of readiness before you start feeding solids.
Signs of Readiness:
Baby can sit up on their own without any support.
Baby has lost the tongue-thrust reflex and does not automatically push all solids out of their mouth.
Baby is displaying interest in eating and wants to participate in mealtime—oftentimes, you know baby is ready because they grab something off your plate and eat it before you can stop them!
You can observe baby “chewing”.
Baby has started to pick up items with their hands
With BLW, babies start feeding themselves whole foods from the very beginning. Foods are cut into finger-shaped pieces and are soft enough that they can be squished between your finger and thumb easily.
How to cut foods for a 6-month-old:
How to cut foods for an 8-month-old:
Images source: jennahelwig.com
Some parents worry about choking with this method. If you check out the evidence linked below, you will find that there is actually no increased risk of choking from BLW. Babies in feeding studies who practiced traditional weaning compared with those that practiced BLW were at the exact same risk of choking. BLW does, however, come with some gagging—and this gagging is actually protective. If a long piece of food hits the back of the throat, or baby chews off too big of a bite to swallow, they will gag it up to prevent them from choking. Gagging is also noisy, while choking is silent.
Pros: In BLW, baby eats what you eat, so there’s no need for separate prep. Babies really get to learn to chew and experience different textures with BLW. This also eliminates the need for transitions, as baby fully self-feeds whole foods from the beginning. A really nice advantage of BLW is that baby can be an active and independent participant of mealtime; they are feeding themselves, and therefore you can feed yourself!
Cons: BLW is messy—food in their eye (and your eye), covering the floor, all over the walls and even on the dog kind of messy. The gagging can be a little disconcerting, especially at first. They do get over this fairly quickly and it’s harmless, but it often scares parents. I have personally experienced and also heard from many friends that this can be very challenging with grandparents and daycare providers who only want to feed purées and feel too scared (or judgmental) to give a 6-month-old whole foods.
Now that we’ve covered traditional and baby-led weaning, let’s talk about combining the two together. There are lots of reasons why moms might want to combo feed. Maybe you’re running into issues with weight gain, iron levels, or allergies, or perhaps you’re just looking for a nuanced approach for your baby.
There are practically endless ways to combine traditional weaning and BLW. Here are some ideas and options:
Wait until 6 months, and then start with purées. If you feel like your little one isn’t ready to start solids at 4 or 5 months, it is okay to listen to your gut. Just because you’re waiting until 6 months doesn’t mean you have to start with finger foods.
Load up a spoon with a purée and allow baby to feed themselves.
Give baby purée in a bowl, and let them feed themselves using their hands (or face, or feet—sounds crazy, but babies are acrobats!).
Serve finger foods, but when it comes to allergens, use purées.
Similarly, serve finger foods, but give baby purée pouches on the go.
Serve finger foods at home and send purées to daycare or some combination.
Serve both spoonfed purées and finger foods. Some people worry about a choking hazard with this method, as purées are swallowed whereas finger foods are chewed and then swallowed. Check out the resources section to see this concern debunked. And, as is always the case when feeding your little one solids, watch diligently and be ready to step in if baby needs any help.
Keep in mind that whichever of the above methods you end up choosing, there are a few “rules” that apply to all methods of feeding baby solids:
No honey of any kind until baby turns 1.
Food does not replace baby’s breastmilk or formula until they are 1. All solid food is complementary under one, and infants should be drinking a minimum of 24 oz of breastmilk per day, unless your doctor says otherwise.
Avoid foods that are choking hazards.
Encourage your child to eat iron-rich foods.
Limit their salt intake—little bodies can’t handle very much salt.
If baby refuses to eat or shows no interest in foods, check out this guide and talk to your pediatrician. They may advise you not to worry yet, or they can refer you to an early intervention or feeding specialist.
Pro Tip from Guidepost at Home Nannies: Take an infant CPR class before you start feeding your baby solids. It can give you so much peace of mind and help you stay calm. It is an excellent idea to have anyone who is feeding your child without you there be certified in infant CPR. Also, check that they know all potential choking hazards. CanDoKiddo has a scary story about her child having a severe choking episode because the new babysitter didn’t have proper training. If you’re part of the CK community, rest assured, all Guidepost at Home Nannies are first aid and infant CPR certified.
Pro Tip from the Guidepost at Home Moms: Before choosing your feeding method, check in with your care provider (whether it’s a nanny or daycare). They might have rules and regulations about starting age and types of foods they can give your child.
There are so many things to worry about as a parent. When your little one enters kindergarten with all of their cute little friends, nobody will know who was a traditional weaner, which kiddo did BLW, or whose parents gave them a combo. As my friend Dorothy says, “Ultimately, I think feeding is like everything else—there are tons of options, and lots of reasons to do or not do anything. It is important to find what works for you, your baby, your family, and your lifestyle. Trust in your ability to make a good and informed choice. If you’re still not sure, your pediatrician is always a good person to check in with—you chose them because you trust them after all!”
Jen Garcin is a proud mom of a human baby and two kittens. She had an exciting and fulfilling career in criminal justice reform before transitioning to her favorite job ever, being a stay-at-home mom to her daughter & boss, Eloise. She is also a certified yoga instructor. Jen is passionate about all issues related to motherhood, social justice, and dabbles in freelance writing and marketing consulting. She is super active in her local community, and hosts a monthly cookbook club.