Cookbook author Annabel Karmel talks us through the basics

By Kate Hogan Annabel Karmel
June 03, 2019 12:48 PM
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Remember those glass jars of baby food from your childhood? Your kids might find them as foreign as a cassette tape.

Today’s parents are skipping prepackaged jars of purées in favor of steaming and serving their own puréed veggies and fruits — and some are even bypassing that step and practicing baby-led weaning, a.k.a. giving babies matchstick-sized servings of table food to hold and munch on themselves.

This technique, which originated in the U.K. has gained popularity in the U.S., though there is a lot to learn before starting with your own children. To nail down the basics, we spoke to Annabel Karmel, author of the Baby-Led Weaning Recipe Book. Below, she answers some of our biggest questions.

What is baby-led weaning?

“The idea of ‘baby-led weaning’ isn’t exactly new, but its popularity (and how it’s been presented) has become

While a lot of parents still start out with smooth purees, the theory behind baby-led weaning is that you start with soft finger foods and small portions of family meals from the very start of weaning, at around 6 months. The idea is that you put your baby in control, allowing them to decide which foods they want to eat, when they want to eat, in what order and how much. It’s all about allowing and encouraging your baby to go at their own pace whilst exploring a variety of foods, tastes and textures for themselves.

This process is actually quite intuitive for a baby – especially if they are watching the rest of the family eat. You’ll be surprised just how much babies pick up!

Why choose to do baby-led weaning instead of purées?

“For most parents, when they feel their baby is ready to be introduced to the wonderful world of food, the big conundrum is whether to take the traditional spoon-led or baby-led route. With so much conflicting advice it’s difficult to know which method to choose, but ultimately you want to take the approach that works for you, your baby and your family. You just need to feel comfortable with the route you are taking, and of course that baby is enjoying it too.

Krispie Chicken Nuggets from Karmel's Baby-Led Weaning Recipe Book

So why might you want to do baby-led weaning? First, it encourages hand-to-eye coordination, and regularly handling foods improves babies’ dexterity, which is a hugely important skill for your baby to master.

The idea behind baby-led weaning is also that your baby essentially eats what the rest of the family is eating (albeit, suitably chopped or mashed to begin with, and minus any added salt). This means that mealtimes become more of a social occasion because your baby is watching how the rest of the family is eating and essentially mimicking and copying how it’s done!

Plus, this also means less time spent preparing foods, since your little one is eating what everyone else is having.  And lots of families who adopt this approach often find that their usual meals become healthier as they cater to baby too.

Personally I believe that you don’t have to choose one or the other. Offering a mix of puréed, nutrient-dense foods as well as soft fingers foods at the beginning of weaning is advocated by the likes of the Department of Health, the NHS and the British Nutrition Foundation and is an option many parents find most realistic to adopt.

By 6 1/2 months, all babies should be having soft finger foods anyway, even if served alongside mashed or textured purees. And if you are baby-led weaning, then you’ll still need to let your baby explore smooth-textured foods such as yogurt, as this is still a new texture that they need to experience and accept.

So really, to sum up: there really is no right or wrong to weaning.”

What is the best age to start baby-led weaning?

“Every baby is different, but from around 6 months is the age when your baby will likely be developmentally ready to start on solid food and so this is a good age to start with some simple soft finger foods such as steamed batons of butternut squash, carrot or a broccoli floret. Prior to 6 months, babies tend not to have developed the hand-to-eye coordination needed for baby-led weaning, so if your baby is ready to wean younger, you will likely need to start with spooned purées.

Annabel Karmel
Annabel Karmel

Premature babies who are advised to begin weaning after the recommended 26 weeks are unlikely to be suitable for baby-led weaning from the outset as they just won’t be developmentally ready.

It’s important to note that all babies develop at their own pace. Many will take to self-feeding quickly and easily but other babies, particularly those whose motor skills are a little slower to develop, will find it difficult to take in useful amounts of food until they are 6 1/2 to 7 months – so this is a great example of when nutrient-rich purées can be offered until they progress (at their pace) onto soft finger foods.”

Are there any risks to baby-led weaning?

“Research has shown that babies who self-feed will consume more salt and sugar earlier than traditional spoon-led babies because they are generally eating more family meals, rather than specific purée recipes designed to contain as little salt and sugar as possible. You can absolutely cook one meal for the whole family, but you will need to be careful that their portions are baby-suitable and don’t contain any hidden salt or sugar from stock cubes, pre-made sauces, etc.

It’s also important to ensure that your baby is never left alone while eating, and they must always be supported in an upright position. Babies can store food in their cheeks for quite some time after eating, so check that they have swallowed all of their food and are not saving any for later.”

I’m scared of my baby choking. Is baby-led weaning safe?

“It is understandable to worry about your baby choking and it is one of the top questions I get asked when parents are thinking of starting baby-led weaning.

Whether you are feeding purées or finger foods (or both), your baby’s own developmental abilities are what ensure that the transition to solid foods takes place at the right time for them, reducing the risk of choking. That’s why it is important to start weaning only when your baby shows signs that they are ready.

It can be unnerving if your baby gags, especially if the world of introducing solids is fairly new. But the important thing to remember is that while chewing and swallowing is second nature to us, it is a skill your baby will need to learn.

What looks concerning to us is likely to be your baby getting used to different textures and foods in their mouth. They need to learn how to use their tongue to move food from the front of their mouth to the back, so they can swallow it. Of course, this kind of exploration can lead to gagging.

Gagging, as opposed to choking, is actually a safety mechanism – it is a natural response to food traveling too far back in the mouth. It’s your baby’s way of managing the problem, and they’ll usually sort it out without your help. That said, you should never leave your baby alone while eating, not even for a second.

It’s worth noting that some babies will gag more easily than others. That’s why it’s important to take things at your baby’s pace and follow their lead. Giving finger foods very early on in their weaning journey is actually really good as they get to control how far back they push the food in their mouth. And the more they practice, the more the gag reflex will move further back.

Choking is something very different as this is when your baby’s airways become blocked. They will be unable to cry, cough, make any noise or breathe and they will need immediate help.

I encourage all new parents to become familiar with first aid procedures for babies and children. Check out the Red Cross or NHS websites which have step-by-step training videos or ask your pediatrician about First Aid courses near where you live.”

What are the best foods to start baby-led weaning with?

“First foods should be cooked until soft, but not too mushy so that your baby can grab it with their fist. Batons of steamed carrot, sweet potato or broccoli (they can hold the stem) are great as are avocado, mango and papaya wedges. Bananas are also a great first food, just leave the skin on the bottom so they can grip onto this with their fist.”

Once babies hit that 6-month milestone they need essential nutrients such as iron, so you can now also start to offer cooked eggs cut in half, fingers of cheese, pieces of cooked chicken or fish as well as family meals such as cottage pie, spaghetti Bolognese or chicken curry.”

Does doing baby-led weaning benefit kids as they grow older?

“There are suggestions that self-feeding can help with appetite control, and whilst more research needs to be done into the connection between baby-led weaning and obesity, it is thought that a baby is less likely to over-eat if they are allowed to choose what they eat from a range of nutritious foods. Having foods laid out in front of them also encourages babies to eat at their own pace and decide when they have had enough.

There is also some research which has found that babies who are spoon-fed could become picky. Babies who are given the power to decide which foods to eat or leave, how much or little to eat, and stop when they’ve had enough tend to accept new foods more willingly as they can decide what they do with that food — and yes, that can mean throwing it on the floor or smearing it all over the table or tray.

But that’s okay! Babies are naturally inquisitive and exploring their food is how they learn. And they can learn a lot from handling food; from finding out how to hold something without or dropping it, to getting to grips with different shapes, sizes, weights, tastes and textures. After all, taste is just one of the five senses that a baby will use when exploring food.

Are there any supplies you should get before starting baby-led weaning?

“Baby-led weaning can indeed get messy! And this can become quite monotonous if you are clearing up after your baby two or three times a day.  My top tip is to pop a cheap shower curtain or piece of clear plastic on the floor underneath their highchair.

Pasta shells with salmon and veggies from Karmel's Baby-Led Weaning Recipe Book 

Bibs will also be essential. Sleeved bibs are great for both spoon feeders and baby-led weaners, and if you can buy those with a pocket even better as these will help to catch food that misses their mouth.”

Are there foods children can’t eat while trying baby-led weaning?

Although baby-led weaning provides a window of opportunity to introduce your baby to a variety of tastes and textures, there are some foods you will need to leave off the menu for babies under 12 months:

  • Honey, which may contain the food poisoning bacteria botulism
  • Rice milk, as this dairy-free alternative contains a high level of arsenic
  • High-mercury fish such as shark, swordfish and marlin
  • Smoked or cured meats (like bacon) as they are high in salt
  • Cow’s milk (or goat’s/sheep’s milk) as a main drink. However, you can introduce a little into your baby’s foods in cooking from 6 months
  • Unpasteurized dairy products
  • Low-fat or diet versions of foods, as they’re low in nutrition and likely to include sweeteners
  • Unhealthy and processed foods such as battered foods, sugary breakfast cereals, chips and other foods that contain sugar
  • Stimulants such as chocolate or sugar
  • High choking-risk foods such as whole grapes, large blueberries, cherry tomatoes — always cut these into quarters
  • Whole/chopped nuts; instead serve in ground or nut butter form
  • Added salt and sugar”

Visit annabelkarmel.com for more information.

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