Weaning babies. Baby-led or puree spoon-fed?

Before we delve knee-deep into the messy world of weaning, we just need to point out that the contents of this post are based on our own, and other parents', experiences relating to weaning. We're not medical professionals giving advice, so you should always speak to your healthcare professional for the most up-to-date information and advice. 

There are so many things to think about when the time comes for weaning your baby onto solid foods and there's so much advice out there that it can sometimes feel a bit daunting. So we've tried to pull together as many useful hints and tips as we can, as well as the all-important advice from other parents who've been there and done it. They're the ones with the first-hand experiences, after all.

When should you think about starting weaning?

According to the NHS (and plenty of other healthcare experts) babies should be around six months old when they start to eat solid food. And it makes sense that they should also be able to sit up pretty well by themselves before they start eating. It's a really good idea to wait until they become very interested in food you’re eating - to the point where they're trying to pinch it off you. Here's a link to the NHS website if you want to find out more about the NHS guidelines for weaning babies onto solid foods - https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/solid-foods-weaning.

"You need to be very patient and don't get disappointed if they don't take to it as soon as they turn six months old, I have friends whose babies didn't get the hang of solids until they were 8 or 9 months old. They'll do it in their own time and it'll take longer if you try to force it (I know this from personal experience). My first baby took to it like a duck-to-water, but my second got really upset every time I put him in the highchair for food so I kept leaving it for a few days before trying again. In the end I stopped preparing little bits especially for him and just sat him at the table with us and just put some bits of our food on his tray and let him get on with it. Be prepared to prepare lots of food only for most of it to end up on the floor." Katharine, mum of two

When that amazing sixth-month milestone starts to loom it can feel like there's a lot of pressure to whip your baby into a highchair and place chunks of broccoli and carrot before him the second he hits 26 weeks. You might feel the urge to dash out and splash out on every bit of kit related to eating you think you could possibly need. So we asked around to find out what parents found came in handy for weaning:

  • Highchair - it doesn't need to be an all-singing all-dancing expensive one, as long as it's safe and sturdy, has good straps and preferably a tray. It can also be helpful to have a smaller portable seat that straps onto normal chairs for when you're out and about

  • Plenty of plastic Tupperware that can go in the dishwasher, microwave and freezer. These don't need to be tiny as they won't fit many chunks of food in them and won't last you very long. We find around 270ml - 400ml pots to be the most useful

  • Plastic cutlery - you only really need spoons at the start as babies don't tend to use knives and forks for a while

  • A little lunch box for taking food out and about with you

  • Beakers for water (preferably ones they don't have to suck from)

  • Plenty of bibs. Although with baby-led weaning it can sometimes just be easier just to remove all clothing as they (and you) are going to get very messy indeed

  • Plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables

  • And most importantly, a willing participant and a parent with oodles of patience

Baby-led weaning or spoon-fed. What's the difference?

Baby-led weaning is all in the name. It's about encouraging babies to take the lead by feeding themselves right from when they start changing from just milk to milk and solid foods, rather than being fed by someone. Traditionally, weaning babies onto solids more commonly involved parents spoon-feeding pureed foods to their little ones. 

The idea of baby-led weaning is that your baby is in control, all you need to do is simply lay out a small selection of food items in front of him so it's there if and when he wants to try it. It's all about encouraging him to touch, hold and explore the food in his own way, in his own time. There's no rushing, no trying to put food into your baby's mouth for him. It takes time and a bucket-load of patience.

If your baby sits with the rest of the family at meal times it'll help her start to become interested in what you're eating and encourage her to try things. 

As much as healthcare advice seems to dominantly be steering us towards baby-led weaning it's not to say you should never give your baby anything pureed or use a spoon. Plenty of parents we spoke to used a combination of the two methods. Your baby might like to try holding a spoon with some puree or yogurt on themselves (and might even get a bit into their mouth), or you could offer them the spoon if they open their mouth. It's probably worth covering up anything within a two-metre radius due to flying food.

"I think I started weaning her at about 4/5 months. I tried with an Ella pouch which she hated, so my cousin told me about baby led weaning. I didn’t stick to strict baby led weaning and mixed it up, but I did like the way I could leave food on her high chair tray and she would just eat herself leaving me free to eat my dinner rather than having to feed her. She literally eats anything so I have been lucky!!" Deborah, mum of one

What kinds of food should babies eat then?

Food doesn't need to be pureed for babies to join in with your family meals and, within reason, they should be able to eat pretty much what the rest of you eat.

"Don't fret over baby led or puree, do a bit of both as both have merits and baby gets used to more flavours (puree) and more textures (baby-led). Also cook your own if you can, easy to steam/roast some extra veg as you cook for the rest of the family and it tastes much better than pouches/jars and is so much cheaper. Do love pouches for when out and about though," Ruth, mum of two

It's a big time for a baby so try not to overwhelm her with too many different textures and tastes all at once. Start with one food at a time, that way you can keep an eye on her in case something disagrees with her. Don't add sugar or salt to foods. 

The NHS website advises introducing the following foods one at a time and only after your baby is six month's old, in case of allergies: cows' milk; eggs; foods that contain gluten; foods containing nuts or seeds (avoid whole nuts until over the age of five due to risk of choking); and fish and shellfish. There's a useful list of foods to avoid here.

First food ideas

We asked some parents what they've given their babies in the first few weeks of weaning:

  • Fruits cut into quarters or strips 

  • Boiled vegetables they can pick up easily, such as broccoli and carrots

  • Sweet potato wedges, boiled new potatoes or jacket potato

  • Avocado wedges

  • Pasta like Fussili, as it's easier to hold

  • Scrambled egg

  • Home-made beef burger

  • Curry - not too hot but with loads of spices

  • Cucumber strips

  • Baby porridge

  • Shreddies or Weetabix

  • Chunky strips of cheese

  • Yogurt 

  • Strips of cooked chicken or other meat - chicken is nice gently fried in a bit of lemon juice with some Tarragon

  • Toast and butter/cheese/avocado/hummus

  • Meatballs

  • Chilli con carne

  • Pizza bread - pesto with melted chease

Don't just take our word for it - we asked the experts (aka mums and dads) for their top tips

"Let them explore, play and have fun with food. Let them make a mess of themselves and the floor and don't be tempered to keep cleaning them during the feed, wait until the end."

"Don't give them any water until near the end of the meal."

"Don't look panicked when they gag! I know it's hard but keep a smile on your face so they know it's a natural thing for them to learn."

"Don't be afraid or worried about what they eat. Let them eat what you eat (maybe not the takeaway pizza!) But as long as the food is cut to the right size or mashed up (not pureed) then they can eat what you eat and it's a great way to introduce them to all the different food types."

"Try to make sure meal times are regular each day so they know when to expect food and milk."

"Definitely invest in a mat for the floor!!"

"Leave the skin on sticks of cucumber. My baby just naturally would push bits with skin to the front of her mouth so I didn’t then worry too much about her choking on them." 

"Buy bags of frozen sweet potatoes and butternut squash and cook them as they go squishy."

"Be very careful about giving babies things they could choke on, such as grapes (always cut length-ways) and blueberries. It's better to stick to things like whole strawberries or raspberries to begin with."

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