When you’re introducing solid foods, it can be hard to know what’s best – but with an open mind and a bit of research, you can find the best method for you and your baby.
As with almost *everything* in the parenting world, the topic of solids can stir up some pretty strong feelings. There are a bunch of different ways to introduce your little person to solid foods – and typically, everyone thinks their preferred method is the best method! The traditional crowd tend to follow the Plunket feeding progression, baby-led-weaning folks won’t go near a plastic spoon, and the ‘anything goes’ lot do a bit of both...
If you have friends or family in different feeding factions, it can be difficult to know which way to go. The good news: there’s little difference in outcomes between feeding methodologies, so you can choose the way that makes the most sense to you and your family.
Disclaimer - I’m no expert here, but based on my own experiences, I thought I’d share the key differences between the different methods so that you can consider how you might make the transition to solid food as simple and stress-free as possible for you and your baby.
When to get started
Most doctors and health organisations recommend exclusive breastfeeding or formula feeding for the first six months of your baby’s life – although some people choose to introduce solids slightly earlier, at around the four or five-month mark.
At first, solids are complementary to milk, rather than a replacement. Until your baby is about a year old, breastmilk or formula is often still their primary source of nutrition.
At six months, most babies seem ready to eat solids – and they typically need more than milk can offer. At this age, most babies can sit upright, move food toward the back of their mouth for swallowing and digest new food. Their nutritional needs also change – irons stores built up in the womb are depleted, so they need extra iron from solid food.
Understanding different feeding methods
There are three main schools of thought around introducing solids – the traditional puree approach, baby-led-weaning, and the anything/anytime method. Let’s take a quick look at each option.
Traditional approach – purees and progressions
This approach to solids is still the most common. You start by spoon-feeding a thin puree and typically introduce new foods in a specific order. Some opt for baby rice cereal mixed with breastmilk or formula, others for pureed vegetables such as kumara, followed by pureed fruit.
Fine purees are gradually replaced by mashed foods, then softer solids and manageable adult foods. Eggs, dairy, meat, and fish are often introduced at around 7-8 months. Throughout the process, new foods are introduced every two-three days, so parents have the chance to look for signs of an allergy.
I recall the pleasure of making purees for my first baby, George. He didn’t always enjoy what I was offering - in fact, fast forward 18 months or so, and I found trays and trays of pureed kumara cubes at the back of our freezer - but watching him experience different textures and flavours was heaps of fun! When life got busy, he enjoyed Little Angels purees, which were able to provide him with flavour diversity that I couldn’t, particularly different proteins.
Baby-led-weaning – freedom and finger foods
Baby-led-weaning (BLW) gives babies control over their eating from the beginning. Rather than feeding purees, you offer soft food cut into sticks for your little one to grab. Ripe avocado or banana, cooked kumara, broccoli or carrot, soft egg, even overcooked pasta – almost any type of food can be given, as long as it’s very soft.
Later, babies move to smaller pieces of food as their hand-eye coordination improves, and eventually, they are given the same food as the rest of the family, cut into bite-size pieces. This is certainly a convenient bonus!
Strict BLW advocates recommend that parents never feed with a spoon or put food into the baby’s mouth – the theory is that your baby should have complete control over what she eats.
My third baby, Maggie, definitely indulged in more BLW than my first two. This was partly convenience based - she could eat what the boys were eating; partly education based - as BLW has certainly risen in popularity these past few years; and partly demanded by her - because everything the boys do, she wants to do too! I did hit the panic button a few times when she would put too much in her mouth and attempt to swallow it, eyes watering and all, but I learnt to avoid certain foods like bacon, which for us were better left until she was a bit older.
(Almost) anything goes – the relaxed approach
Some parents split the difference between traditional weaning and BLW, and take an ‘anything goes’ approach. They might choose to start with purees as usual, but offer a wider variety of foods, start finger foods earlier, and introduce new foods whenever it feels right – no three-day wait.
Of course, a relaxed approach doesn’t mean ignoring safety or nutrition. It’s still important to avoid added sugar and salt, make sure your baby has a good range of foods, and avoid choking hazards like grapes, nuts, popcorn, and whole pieces of meat or uncooked apple.
Choosing your method
Every feeding approach has its upsides and downsides – it’s about what makes the most sense for your family. Your baby has a say as well(!): you might start with purees, and find that he much prefers finger foods, or start with BLW and find that he doesn’t have the motor skills required for that yet.
With its clear guidelines and progressions, the traditional approach can be comforting for anxious first-time parents. But some of the recommendations are not necessarily based on science - there’s widespread criticism of rice cereal as a first food, and continued debate about introducing meats and dairy earlier than recommended to help meet your baby’s increased iron needs. I’d recommend having an open mind, doing some research to find your happy place, and listening to those who you love and/or trust before deciding what approach is best for you.
Because BLW requires more hand-eye coordination and chewing skills, it’s not recommended before six months. Criticisms of BLW tend to centre on choking and the possibility of iron-deficiency, but research suggests that the risks are no higher than with other feeding methods. There is also some evidence that baby-led-weaning may lead to babies preferring healthier foods over sweeter options – which has to be a good thing in the long term, right?!
Tips, tricks, and safety risks
With every method, it’s important to offer a range of healthy, nutritious foods and avoid added salt and sugar. I always tried to sit my babies upright to eat, and (to this day) I try my best not to let them walk around with food. Particularly with BLW, I always supervised eating, so I could intervene if required. Having said that, a certain amount of gagging and spitting out food is a normal (if not slightly alarming!) part of learning how to chew and swallow.
I cooked and blended some of my own purees and purchased some ready-made options – just checking for added sugar, salt or other nasties. Our Little Angels and Tiny Foragers meals are as pure as it gets - which is really important to us as parents (not to mention they’re in handy frozen cubes, ready to heat and eat!).
For baby-led-weaning, I made sure food was soft enough to ‘smush’ between my fingers and served in long, thin pieces easy for the kids to pick up and naw on. Later, as they developed their fine motor skills, I would cut food into smaller pieces.
For a more relaxed approach, you can offer almost any food, including mixed foods. Some parents using this method keep a detailed food diary in case their baby has an adverse reaction to a new food. Of course if you have a history of allergies, take some advice from your GP.
Choose what works for your baby
When you’re a first-time parent, it can be hard to know which feeding choice is right for you, and the plethora of opinions and research around the topic can be overwhelming. Although each method of introducing solids has its upsides and downsides, as long as you follow safety guidelines and choose healthy foods, they’re all perfectly valid. No matter what your sister, your mum or the Plunket nurse says, you can choose the method that works best for you and your baby. Like I’ve said, I’d recommend having an open mind, doing some research to find your happy place, and listening to those who you love and/or trust before deciding what approach is best. I hope this short article helps!
If you need a hand, take a look at our range of healthy, tasty baby food now.