Baby-led weaning vs purees: Where to begin when first feeding solids to your child

Most parents start feeding their baby food between 4 and 6 months of age

Feeding babies purees is a more traditional style of weaning. Unsplash
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When it comes to parenting, there are always numerous hotly contested schools of thought on any given topic. Breastfed or fed is best? Dummy or no dummy? To sleep train or not? The list, as the months and years go by, is endless.

One that crops up around the 6-month mark is how to start feeding your baby solids. There are two main methods: via purees (also known as traditional weaning) or the more modern style of baby-led weaning. Or, of course, you can do a combination of both.

But which way is best for your babe?

What is baby-led weaning?

The idea behind baby-led weaning, or BLW, is that parents start feeding children hand-held finger foods, bypassing the need for spoon-fed purees altogether. Mum and dad usually offer the meals they are eating themselves, and introduce all manner of textures and flavours to little ones right from the start, promoting independence and sensory exploration.

There are evidence-backed benefits to this approach, says Dr Prabhakar Patil, a specialist paediatrician from Medcare Women & Children Hospital, "such as obesity prevention, as it respects self-regulation, higher consumption of fruits and vegetables, better development of motor skills, and positive effects on parent behaviour".

"The child likes to participate in family meals, with no pressure regarding time and amount consumed, and interact with the food, through different textures."

Overall, this method can create a better relationship with food, he says.

Baby-led weaning is when parents largely let their child feed themselves from 6 months onwards. Unsplash
Baby-led weaning is when parents largely let their child feed themselves from 6 months onwards. Unsplash

Mirna Sabbagh, a dietitian and lactation consultant, agrees that baby-led weaning offers numerous benefits, including respecting little ones' satiety cues.

"It also involves children eating family foods earlier and therefore accepting a variety of flavours and being less picky later on."

So why bother with traditional weaning?

There are still some advantages to spoon-feeding first, even if it is more labour intensive for parents. Firstly, food is introduced gradually, one after the other, which means if a child is allergic to anything, you'll know immediately what the culprit is, explains Patil.

"Hypothetically, there is also less risk of choking, as the food is initially given in puree form, but some studies have found no difference in choking episodes between TW and BLW methods," he adds.

This risk is the reason why, often, traditional weaning is far less scary for parents, says Sabbagh. "Parents often panic when they hear about baby-led weaning and worry about choking."

It's not a misplaced concern, either, she adds. "There are several choking hazards parents should know about if they choose to go for BLW." This includes offering foods such as nuts, whole grapes and cherries, for example.

"Also, with BLW, parents may forget to offer kids foods that are naturally offered as purees, such as soups," Sabbagh adds. "Learning how to eat soups and food items off a spoon is important as a skill."

If you do decide to rely on the traditional weaning method, then Sabbagh says it's imperative parents take notice of a child's fullness cues, so not to overfeed them.

"Also, it is essential that with TW parents offer finger foods by nine months and thicker textures, otherwise the baby will lose the window of opportunity to learn how to chew foods and may find it very difficult to accept thicker textures later on."

Can you do a bit of both?

The short answer is: yes. There are, however, some who believe combining both methods can be dangerous, as one requires the baby to learn to chew and swallow, while in the other they only need to swallow, posing another choking risk.

Dietitian and lactation consultant Mirna Sabbagh
Dietitian and lactation consultant Mirna Sabbagh

"This is an important factor to consider," says Patil. "But there is no solid evidence that combining both can be dangerous. On the contrary, some parents find it more practical to follow a middle path between these two approaches."

Mum-of-two Vanessa Emslie, in-house nutritionist at children's snacks company Koala Picks, found a middle ground approach to be most advantageous.

"Independence and choice are important to all children, no matter their age. I found baby-led weaning to be best, with occasionally a little help from mum, spoon-feeding on days where I felt there was too much mess on the floor, and not enough nutrients in their tummies."

Emslie, who has one child who battles with sensory, gluten and dairy food challenges, believes if a parent relies too heavily on purees it could lead to their child unintentionally becoming a fussy eater as they grow up.

"Weaning babies on bland, silky-smooth sweet purees could predispose children to limited tastes and textures and nutrients," she says. "Babies can discern taste in the placenta and through breastmilk, so they know what mum eats."

How do you begin the weaning process?

Firstly, you need to discern the when.

"Weaning is a slow and gradual process ... Some of the milestones the baby needs to attain before you start solids include proper neck holding, sitting with support, and showing interest in food when adults are eating," Patil explains.

Then start with simple foods, Emslie advises, which are lightly seasoned with spices and herbs common to your family's tastes. "I would suggest foods that are low allergy risk and also don't pose a choking hazard. Softly steamed veggies and cut fruits are ideal, as are mashed foods – plenty of sensory fun to be had."

Dr Prabhakar Patil. Courtesy Medcare
Dr Prabhakar Patil. Courtesy Medcare

While parents can be adventurous in the foods they offer their baby, there are some ingredients you should avoid. This includes honey, fresh cow's milk, sugar and salt until they're 1 year old, says Patil.

Most importantly, "be watchful for choking when you start weaning, and remember that the gagging reflux can happen and it's normal," he says.

How much and what should you feed babies?

Emslie explains how much you can expect your baby to eat once they hit the 6-month mark (this is the age, as recommended by the World Health Organisation, that parents can definitely start introducing solids).

"From 6 to 9 months, offer three small meals, but expect them to only eat around 30 millilitres to 60ml, with most of their nutrition still coming from breastmilk or formula.

"At 9 months, you can expect this to increase to double (around 120ml), and you may need to offer snacks."

They should be relying on food for all their nutritional needs by 1, eating three meals and two to three snacks per day, she adds. "However, these are general guides and will vary daily, weekly and from child to child."

While Patil says there are no hard and fast rules on what you should feed your baby first, Sabbagh says it's important to incorporate vegetables and healthy proteins as soon as possible.

Emslie says all vitamins and minerals are essential, "as they all have important roles in metabolism, growth and overall health. One way to achieve this is to focus on offering a rainbow colour of foods over the week, plus a mix of proteins, healthy carbs and fats. We need water-soluble vitamins (Bs and C), fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K), zinc, iron and, especially, brain-boosting omega 3."

What else do you need to know?

While it's up to you and your family how you start the weaning process, Emslie says it's important to remember that children will copy what's happening at home, and model the behaviours they're exposed to.

So, when it comes to instilling healthy eating habits in your children, the best way to do this is to embody them yourself.

"If parents eat a range of healthy, nourishing foods, there is a good chance that children will do the same," she says.

"Another vital aspect is family mealtime at the dinner table. Research shows that not only do children eat more variety when they eat regularly with their parents and siblings around a table, but there is also better communication and improved family relationships compared to children who don't."