Starting solids can be a really exciting and at the same time overwhelming experience. Whether you choose baby led weaning, purées, or a combo for starting solids the following guide with walk you through how to choose the best baby led weaning foods and purées to help meet baby’s specific nutrient needs.
What Is Baby Led Weaning
Baby led weaning has picked up A LOT of momentum over the past few years, but really it is nothing new. Baby led weaning is the most traditional way that people have been feeding their babies before “baby food” ever existed. While baby led weaning may sound like a special form of feeding, it really is just a way of offering babies normal foods that are already a part of your family’s food culture and diet, in safe forms and a variety of textures.
Benefits Of Baby Led Weaning
There are many benefits to the baby led weaning approach to starting solids, but the following are some of the most beneficial for your baby:
- Baby led weaning focuses on allowing baby to have more autonomy in the feeding process
- Baby is able to explore different foods and textures as a sensory experience
- Baby are more quickly able to be involved in the family’s meals and food culture
- Baby is exposed to a wider variety of food and textures acceptance
- Encourages babies to tune into their own intuitive hunger and fullness cues
- Can potentially reduce the risk of picky eating
Baby Led Weaning vs. Purées
As a dietitian, I really do not understand the pitting of baby led weaning and purées against each other, which is why I actually prefer to refer to my favorite approach to infant feeding as baby led feeding. From my experience, the most important part of starting solids with your baby and setting your child up for a healthy relationship with food is allowing them autonomy and exploration in the feeding process, and exposing them to a wide variety of flavors, colors, and textures early on.
Since puréed foods are a type of texture, I absolutely believe that they should be introduced to your baby as a part of a baby led feeding approach. Think of foods like yogurt, applesauce, smoothies, or even hummus. These are all foods that are naturally served in a puréed and can absolutely be part of the baby led feeding experience.
What I (and most baby led weaning professionals) can agree on, is that the delayed introduction of textures, and strict forced spoon feeding of purées is what really should be avoided. Instead if you choose to spoon feed, try pre-loading a baby spoon and allowing your baby to reach out and bring the spoon to their mouth.
How To Know If Your Baby Is Ready To Start Solids?
Generally, most babies will be ready to begin starting solids around six months, but because every baby is different in their development
it is important to assess for signs of readiness before getting started.
Six months seems to be the ideal time frame to begin solids because developmentally baby is starting to be able to have better control of their body, and nutritionally six months is when babies start to require additional nutrients beyond breast milk or formula.
If your baby is believed to be high risk for food allergies, your baby’s allergist may recommend the introduction of small exposures to allergenic food earlier than six months however, as research has shown that early exposure of allergenic foods can be protective for high risk children.
Signs Of Readiness For Starting Solids:
- Shows Good Head And Neck Control
- Can Sit Upright Unsupported
- Hand, Eye, Mouth Coordination (baby can reach for items and bring them to their mouth)
- Baby Shows Interest In Food (Note: Babies are interested in A LOT of things, so if they are showing interest in what you are eating while this is a good sign, it shouldn’t be used alone to determine if baby is ready to start solids)
How To Choose The Best Baby Led Weaning Foods
The first 1000 days of a baby’s life (or roughly the first two years) will actually be the most important when it comes to their nutrition. During this time babies brains and bodies are going through rapid growth and development, which is why these tiny little humans have such high nutrient needs.
For these reasons, when it comes to choosing the best baby led weaning foods, it is important to focus on the specific nutrients that babies need in higher quantities, and may no longer be able to get in appropriate amounts from breastfeeding or formula.
While a wide variety of foods will help provide baby with a wide variety of nutrients, the most important nutrients to focus on for babies between 6-12 months especially are:
- Omega 3 Fatty Acids
- Vitamin C
The Best Baby Led Weaning Foods For Starting Solids
From my own personal feeding journey with my baby and my experience as a dietitian, I believe that a natural combination of both puréed foods and soft baby-led weaning style finger foods is the best way to expose babies to a wide variety of tastes and textures from the start.
This means that you could serve baby a food like avocado both mashed with a fork, or served as a spear that baby can hold onto. The same is true for soft fish like sardines that can be served as a spear to hold or mashed.
The “best” first foods that you choose to start with your baby really will depend on your family’s food culture, where you live, and the season that you are starting solids with your baby. But with that in mind, the following food lists are foods that help baby meet their specific increased nutrient needs, while getting exposed to a wide variety of foods and textures.
Iron Rich Baby Led Weaning Foods
Iron needs are at their highest for infants between the ages of 6-12 months at ~11mg/day. This is more than an adult male needs in a day and is some of the highest iron needs that your child will have excluding puberty and menstruation. While before six months infants have plenty of iron stores from their time spent in-utero, around six months additional iron is needed through food to help meet their high needs.
- Lentils: One of the best plant-based iron rich foods for baby as they are cheap and so versatile!
- Chicken & Beef Liver: Liver has one of the highest bio-available sources of heme-iron that you can find from whole foods. Ideally look for a pastured liver if possible.
- Beans: Beans are a high source of plant-based iron with cannellini, navy, black beans, black eyed peas, kidney, lima, garbanzo, and pinto beans being the highest
- Sardines: Sardines are an excellent source of iron and omega-3 fatty acids for baby. They also are the perfect soft consistency.
- Tahini: Tahini or sesame seed paste is high in plant- based iron, and great for adding to oatmeal, purees, baby muffins, pancakes, or to make hummus
- Beef: High in bio-available heme-iron, beef is great choice to offer baby for a first meat. It can be pureed, ground, or served in a large piece for baby to suck on
- Lamb: High in easy to absorb heme-iron lamb is great for making baby meatballs, or allowing baby to hold and explore with the built in handle of a lamb chop
- Edamame: Another form of plant-based iron, edamame is very versatile and can be mashed to add on top of toast, or pureed with beans for an edamame hummus
Vitamin C Rich Baby Led Weaning Foods
Vitamin C rich foods are great to get in the habit of adding to your babies meals as vitamin C has the capacity to help our bodies better absorb iron, especially non-heme plant-based iron sources. I try to add a vitamin C rich fruit or vegetable at every meal if possible, and especially when serving iron-rich plant-based foods.
- Sweet Potato
- Bell Pepper
Omega-3 Rich Baby Led Weaning Foods
Your baby’s brain grows rapidly during the first two years, and omega-3 fatty acids (DHA, EPA) are essential for helping to boost baby’s brain and eye development.
- Salmon: Wild caught salmon is a fatty fish loaded with omega-3 fatty acids. When cooked it’s soft flaky texture is also perfect for baby to hold and munch on.
- Sardines: Sardines are another fish high in omega-3 fatty acids that are great for baby. They are very soft served from the can, and can be given on their own or mashed with other foods like avocado
- Chia Seeds: Chia seeds are an excellent plant based source of omega-3’s. My favorite way to serve chia seeds are in the form of chia pudding or mixed
- Pasture Raised Eggs: Pasture raised eggs and omega-3 fortified eggs are going to be higher in omega-3 fatty acids than your typical eggs, so choose one of these options if possible.
- Walnuts: Ground walnut is a great source of omega- 3’s for baby. Walnuts are a common allergen however, so make sure to start small and repeat
- Grass Fed Beef: Grass fed beef due to the nature of the cows diet is higher in omega-3 fatty acids than most other meats. Because beef is also a great source of zinc and iron, choosing grass fed beef is a great nutrient dense choice for baby!
Zinc Rich Baby Led Weaning Foods
Zinc has many functions in the body but some of the most important for growing babies are it’s role in immune function, and protein and DNA development.
- Lentils: Lentils are one of the best plant-based zinc AND iron rich foods for baby as they are cheap and so versatile!
- Pumpkin Seeds: Pumpkin seeds are a very high source of zinc and are so versatile! Serve as pumpkin seed butter, or grind them up to mix into oatmeal or sprinkle on hummus.
- Egg Yolk: Egg yolks are a great source of zinc for babies, but they also are a top allergen. So start slowly by introducing the egg yolk separate from the whites, and expose baby a minimum of three times before ruling out a food allergy.
- Beans: Most legumes are excellent sources of zinc. To make the zinc and other minerals more bio- available try soaking ahead of time.
- Lamb: High in zinc and easy to absorb heme-iron lamb is a great meat choice for your baby.
- Red Meat: Red meat has some of the highest sources of zinc that you will find AND is high in bio- available heme-iron making it a win-win.
- Sesame Seeds: Sesame seeds are high in zinc and one of my favorite nutrient boosters for babies starting solids. Sprinkle them over avocado, add them to oatmeal, or use sesame paste (tahini) in hummus. Sesame is becoming a more common allergy so always start small and repeat 3 times to rule out a potenial allergy.
- Cashews: Most nuts contain zinc but cashews are particularly high. Nuts can be ground and sprinkled into baby’s food, or blended into nut butter and mixed into yogurt, oats, or spread thinly on toast. Cashews (and all nuts) are a top allergen so always start small and repeat a minimum of 3 times before ruling out an allergy.
Does Baby Led Weaning Increase Choking Risk?
Before starting baby led weaning foods, many parents ask if baby led weaning foods increase the risk of choking. The research we have actually shows that there is no statistical significance to prove that baby led weaning foods vs. purées are more likely to make a baby choke.
In fact, when babies are young and starting solids their gag reflex is so strong and so far forward in their mouth that it is pretty hard for a baby to choke, especially if given safely prepared and shaped foods. Young babies are much more likely to gag, and most will, when starting solids. While gagging can be alarming to parents, it is a normal part of babies learning how to eat and chew.
Since having a calm and positive feeding environment is very important, I always recommend that parents and caregivers look into the difference between gagging and choking, and take a baby first aid class so that in the event of choking you can feel prepared to act.
It also is important to make sure that you are only serving foods in safe forms. Baby led weaning foods should be easily squished between your fingers, and cut in thin ruler slices. Never give baby hard, round foods that could easily get stuck in a baby’s airway.