Tips on how to start weaning your baby to solids

Andrea Mara got over her initial fears of choking to embrace baby-led weaning, and hasn’t looked back since, especially as it meant the end of peeling and puréeing.

SOMETHING TO CHEW ON: Andrea Mara's son dines on roast pork dinner at seven months.

PEELING, chopping, and puréeing — as my third baby approached six months, I geared myself up to start weaning him to solids. 

Memories of ice cube trays and puréed carrots loomed large and uninviting. 

Then I heard about baby-led weaning — a different approach to starting solids, and one that would require no puréeing. 

I researched online, bought a book, and decided to give it a try.

With baby-led weaning (BLW), instead of puréeing food and spooning it into your baby’s mouth, you let your baby help himself — when he’s ready. 

He sits up at the table with the rest of the family and joins in with what everyone else is eating.

It sounded appealing, but I was worried about choking — surely a six-month-old baby couldn’t handle solid food in the same form as adults do?

Gill Rapley, co-author (with Tracey Murkett) of Baby-led Weaning, understands this concern.

“It’s a common fear. But all of us are more at a risk of choking if someone else puts something in our mouths. 

"Make sure the baby is upright, not left alone with food, and not given foods that we know might be a risk — such as small, round, hard foods. 

"Cherry tomatoes and grapes are best cut in half.”

Gagging, on the other hand, is quite common, and although it’s uncomfortable to watch, it’s not the same as choking.

“They do gag sometimes which is a different reflex,” says Rapley. 

“It’s triggered much further forward in the mouth — it’s nowhere near the airway. It seems to be a safety mechanism to help babies learn not to push food too far back.”

A couple of days before he turned six months, I decided my son was ready. 

I put some crusty bread and lightly cooked carrot sticks in front of him, then stood back to see what would happen. 

He reached out immediately, picked up the carrot, and started to chew on it. 

His audience — two excited sisters and two fascinated parents — gave him a round of applause, and from then on, we never looked back.

Every couple of days, we tried new foods — broccoli, sweet potato, toast, fruit — many of the same kinds of foods I had puréed for my first two babies, and followed the same rules: no salt, no sugar, no peanuts. 

Within a few weeks, we had moved on to including him in our own meals and, at seven months, he had his first roast dinner.

BLW also made going out much easier — we didn’t have to pack special meals for my son, he just ate what the rest of us ate. 

And it prompted all of us to eat more healthily. 

I was careful about what went into dinners, knowing my small baby would be joining us.

BLW is also very messy — watching your six-month-old eat spaghetti bolognese with his hands is not for the faint-hearted. 

For porridge and yogurt, I handed him pre-loaded spoons, something lots of BLW parents do.

But the key point is that I only ever offered him food — always putting it in front of him or passing it into his hand. 

Choosing to eat it was up to him.

Indeed, this is one of the reasons that the Irish Nutrition & Dietetic Institute (INDI) and the Food Safety Authority don’t recommend BLW — because of a concern that some babies won’t pick up food themselves, and are better suited to spoonfeeding.

“Baby-led weaning lacks the kind of robust scientific evidence that we would need to change practice,” explains Louise Reynolds, communications manager with INDI.

“It is not recommended, as it can be a little hit-and-miss — some babies may pick up foods and eat a wide variety, others may not show the same interest and may therefore miss this window of opportunity in terms of exposure to new tastes and textures. 

"It can then be difficult to catch up later.”

But it is gaining in popularity, as parents decide to try something that feels natural, and is lots of fun.

“Babies learn to follow their own appetites and decide exactly what to eat and how much, so they can stop as soon as they’re full,” says Rapley.

“Anecdotally, they’re much less suspicious of food when they’re toddlers — they’re inclined to eat more foods and be adventurous.”

So did it work? 

My little boy is definitely more adventurous than his older sisters when it comes to trying new foods, although I can’t say for sure if that’s due to BLW. 

I do know it’s made me more relaxed about feeding my children — I’m better now at trusting them to say when they’re full.

To me, BLW just makes sense.

And really, anything that gets me out of puréeing has to be a good thing.

Eight steps to baby-led weaning:

1. Research before you start — try www.RapleyWeaning.com  www.BabyLedWeaning.com or search for Facebook groups.

2. Make sure your child is developmentally ready: Sitting upright and reaching for food.

3. Focus on offering rather than giving.

4. Offer healthy foods that can be gripped easily in a small fist.

5. Follow the rules about salt, sugar, and peanuts, just as you would if you were spoonfeeding.

6. Trust your baby to know what he needs and when.

7. Let him play and explore and take his time.

8. Keep him safe: Sitting up, not rushed, and not helped when he doesn’t need it.

© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved

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