Baby-led weaning is a way to introduce solid foods to babies. Instead of spoon-feeding baby cereal and purees, you'll skip straight to finger foods and let your baby feed themself. The best foods for baby-led weaning are large pieces of soft foods that are easy to grab and chew, like banana spears, baked apple slices, thin slices of toast, and soft-cooked meat.
Baby-led weaning (BLW) is a method for starting your baby on solids. Instead of spoon-feeding them mushy cereals and purees, you put large chunks of soft food directly on the highchair tray or table, and let your baby grab the food and feed themself. It's called "baby-led" because you let your baby pick up the food and eat at their own pace, instead of controlling how much and how quickly they eat.
Just as with traditional spoon-feeding, your baby will continue to get most of their nutrition from breast milk or formula until they get used to eating solid food (usually around their first birthday).
Check out our videos to see how it's done:
- Baby-led weaning: Signs your baby is ready
- Baby-led weaning: Getting started
- Baby-led weaning: 9 great finger foods
- Baby-led weaning: Is gagging normal?
When to start baby-led weaning
Most babies are ready to start BLW when they're about 6 months old, though some may need more time. Your baby will give you a few signs they're ready for solid foods: If they can sit up without support, can grab and put objects in their mouth, and open their mouth when food is offered, they're probably ready to begin exploring table foods.
Keep in mind that BLW may not be right for babies with special needs or babies who are unable to pick up and chew food on their own. Talk with your baby's doctor before trying BLW, especially if:
- Your baby has special needs and can't chew very well.
- Your baby has difficulty picking up food and moving it to their mouth.
- Your baby was born prematurely. Premature babies have an adjusted developmental milestone schedule, so they may not be ready for solid food at 6 months – and they have different caloric needs in their first year.
How to start baby-led weaning
If your baby shows signs of readiness and their doctor says it's okay to try BLW, here are some tips for getting started:
- It will take your baby time to learn to eat solids, and in the meantime, they'll still be getting their nutrition primarily from breast milk or formula. BLW sessions can focus on fun and exploration. If your baby's hungry, it might be best to give them a bottle or nurse them before offering solid food, so they don't get frustrated.
- BLW can be messy! Manage the mess with a large bib or smock. Placing a mat under your baby's highchair can make for easier cleanup, too.
- Make sure you or another adult is always watching carefully during meals and knows what to do if your baby starts choking. As long as you're watching them, BLW doesn't create a higher risk of choking.
- When it's time to feed your baby, sitting upright in a highchair, not leaning back, is the safest choice.
- Offer your baby soft or well-cooked food cut into sticks or strips that are at least as long as their fist, not bite-size pieces. They'll likely try to hold the food in their fists and smash it into their mouth at first. Over time, they'll learn to grip the food between their thumb and forefinger.
- Don't offer your baby foods that can be choking hazards, like nuts, grapes, popcorn, and foods cut into coins, including sausages and hot dogs.
- Make sure your baby's food passes the "squish test" by checking whether you can squish it on the roof of your mouth with your tongue. That means no raw vegetables and no hard, raw fruit (such as apples) or citrus fruit (unless each segment is peeled). The exception is pieces of food that are large and fibrous enough that small pieces don't break off when sucked or chewed. For example, soft-cooked meat is okay, but cheese sticks are not.
- Put food directly on the highchair tray or table in front of your baby. (Bowls and plates will just end up on the floor.)
- Introduce new foods one at a time. Just as with spoon-feeding, wait three to five days after introducing a new food before trying the next one. That way, if your baby has an allergic reaction, you'll know which food probably caused it.
- Eat as a family whenever possible. Babies learn to eat by observing and imitating other family members. Family mealtimes can also help your baby feel like part of the group.
As with many other parenting approaches, what works for some families won't necessarily work for yours. Some families strictly follow the BLW approach, while others do a combination of BLW and spoon-feeding. For example, you could spoon-feed your baby purees and mashed food sometimes, but allow them to feed themself finger foods (like the ones listed below) at other times.
Good baby-led weaning foods
Some foods that are good to use with BLW include:
- Well-cooked vegetable sticks, including steamed carrots, zucchini, sweet potatoes, and beets
- Food with interesting shapes and textures, such as steamed broccoli and cauliflower florets, and slices of ripe avocado
- Soft, ripe fruits, including banana, papaya, pear, kiwi, melon, and soft-cooked apple
- Large strips of poached chicken or fully cooked steak. Babies won't be able to chew and swallow meat like steak, but they can gnaw and suck on it to get the flavor.
- Whole-grain or vegetable pasta in a shape that's easy to grab, like fusilli or penne
- Rice rolled into balls
- Lentil patties
- Salt-free rice cakes
- Pieces of tofu
As your baby progresses, they can start learning to dip their food chunks into hummus, unsweetened yogurt, and guacamole.
Gagging and choking in baby-led weaning
One concern about giving babies whole food to eat is whether 6-month-old babies are developmentally ready to chew and swallow chunks of food and whether these chunks – even when they're soft – are choking hazards.
Research suggests that baby-led weaning isn't associated with a greater risk of choking. As long as you're watching your baby while they eat and giving them easy-to-eat foods, baby-led weaning is safe.
Whether they're being spoon-fed or feeding themselves, many babies gag when they first start solids, and this can be disconcerting or even frightening.
Gagging is a normal reflex babies have as they learn to eat solids. Gagging brings food forward inside your baby's mouth so they can chew it more or try to swallow a smaller amount. As they get more experience with solid food, your baby will gag less often.
It's also normal for babies to gag as they get used to new flavors and textures. If your baby gags a lot, remember it's a temporary stage that your baby will get through. (If your baby's gagging doesn't improve on its own, talk with their doctor. There are some babies who need feeding therapy, usually with a speech therapist or occupational therapist.)
Here's how to recognize the difference between gagging and choking:
- A child who is gagging may push their tongue forward or out of their mouth and do a retching movement to try to bring food forward. Their eyes may water. They may cough or even vomit. Let your child continue to cough because that's the most effective way to resolve the problem.
- A child who is choking is unable to cry, cough, or gasp. They may make odd noises or no sound at all while opening their mouth. You may need to do back blows or chest thrusts to dislodge the blockage. It's a good idea to take an infant first aid class so you know what to do if your baby chokes.
The pros and cons of baby-led weaning
Many experts say more research is needed on baby-led weaning, but some studies have found it may have the following benefits:
- Healthy eating: Since babies feed themselves, BLW allows them to learn how to listen to their hunger cues and stop eating when they aren't hungry anymore, rather than relying on their parents to tell them when to stop eating. This may produce healthier eaters. Allowing babies to explore different food flavors and textures may make them more adventurous eaters who are more likely to eat a broad range of foods as they grow up.
- Skill development: By trying to grasp and eat chunks of food, infants practice fine motor skills. BLW allows babies to practice eye-hand coordination and picking up pieces of food using the pincer grasp.
- Can be easier for parents: Though you still need to supervise your baby closely, you won't need to spoon-feed your baby with BLW. Your baby can be part of your family's regular dinnertime flow.
There are also potential downsides to baby-led weaning. Some researchers are concerned about:
- Low calorie intake: Because babies are responsible for moderating their own eating, and because young babies aren't very experienced at feeding themselves, they may not eat as much food in their early months of BLW compared to spoon-feeding.
- Nutritional deficiencies: BLW babies may end up deficient in iron, especially if they don't drink formula, because they don't get the iron-fortified cereal that spoon-fed babies are often given.
It takes babies a while to get used to solid food. To ensure adequate nutrition, continue breastfeeding or bottle-feeding your baby during their first year, even after they start eating solid food. (Your baby's main source of nutrients will be breast milk or formula until they're about a year old.) As they learn to eat solid food, they'll need less breast milk or formula.
If you're not sure how much your baby needs to eat and when, check out our age-by-age guide to feeding.
Your baby's doctor will keep track of your baby's growth at well-child visits, so talk with them if you're concerned about how much your baby eats or weighs.
What is baby-led feeding?
Baby-led feeding is often just another name for baby-led weaning. "Weaning" has different meanings in different places – in the United Kingdom, where baby-led weaning started, it refers to the process of introducing solid foods to your baby. But in the United States, it most often refers to ending breast- or bottle-feeding.
Because of that, baby-led weaning is sometimes referred to as "baby-led feeding" in the U.S.
For some, the terms are synonymous. For others, though, baby-led feeding is the unofficial name of a slightly different approach that blends traditional spoon-feeding and baby-led weaning techniques. That might mean offering purees when it's easier and faster, like at daycare or when your family is on the go, and then allowing your baby to eat soft table foods and finger foods at home. This method is also sometimes called modified baby-led weaning.
Baby-led weaning tips
There's no official guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) on baby-led weaning, but many experts say it's safe as long as your baby is developmentally ready to start eating solids. Here are some tips from experts on using BLW:
- Be flexible and be willing to use whatever method works best for your child.
- Make sure the food is developmentally appropriate for your child.
- Food for 6-month-olds doesn't need to be pureed, but it should be the texture, consistency, and size that the child can handle.
- Stay nearby and watch your child eat.
- Be mindful of choking hazards – don't give your baby big globs of sticky foods like peanut butter or hard foods like raw carrots and apples.
- Offer a food several times before deciding your baby doesn't like it. Sometimes, it just takes a little while for your baby to get used to a new flavor or texture.
And here are some comments on BLW from parents who used the method and liked it:
"[Baby-led weaning was] one of the best decisions we made with our daughter. She's a fantastic eater and eats a great variety of food. I also believe it made her a great restaurant eater. We always got compliments on how well-behaved she was, and people were always shocked to see a 7-month-old feeding herself in a restaurant."
"BLW worked great for us. I have never felt that because of BLW my son wasn't eating healthy foods. In fact, I thought the opposite because he wasn't getting anything processed."
"We started baby-led weaning my little guy when he was 6 months old, and we've never looked back. We were really nervous at first about him choking, but in the four months we've been doing this, he hasn't choked once! I'm a huge advocate for BLW. My son will eat anything that I put in front of him and is so excited to try new foods."
"I love baby-led weaning, but it's probably not a magic bullet. I like it because it has freed up a lot of time for me. (I don't have to sit and spoon-feed at every meal.) And it allowed my son to be independent in choosing and eating food. It worked for us because my son was developmentally normal, at a normal weight, and had good manual dexterity."
Check out our Community group on baby-led weaning to see what other questions and experiences parents have had with this technique.