Deciding what approach to take when starting solids is a big decision to make! This is especially true for that first time mom who might not have experience with any method at all, and is wondering… “What if I make a mistake???” “What if one is drastically better than the other?” “What if I ruin my baby by choosing the wrong one?!” Hahaha…just kidding. But also…I feel like these are the thoughts that run through our heads sometimes…am I right?
Spoiler alert (and good news) is….you won’t ruin your baby by choosing the “wrong” method. There isn’t really a wrong way of starting. There is a way to do each method correctly! But no wrong way of starting.
So with that, let’s jump into the details and bring a little clarity to the situation, shall we?
The Two Main Feeding Approaches: Puree Feeding vs. Baby Led Weaning
Let’s start with some definitions.
Puree feeding is the traditional method of feeding, where babies start off with thin purees and are spoon fed by the parent, before moving on to thicker and thicker purees, and then eventually on to small pieces of soft table food. Traditionally, pieces of finger foods weren’t offered to puree fed babies until around 10 months +, but as graduates of my Baby Led Feeding course know, I recommend introducing them way sooner than that, even if they’ve started on purees only to begin with. In the last few decades, babies started with purees between 4-6 months of age, because they didn’t have the skills to eat anything but very thin purees. But did you know that in previous decades, babies as young as 2 and 3 months of age were being started on purees? So much NO around that…but not something we’ll get into in this blog post 😉
We now know that, even when starting purees, it’s better to wait until closer to 6 months for safety and digestive reasons!
Baby led weaning is when your baby starts feeding themselves soft, whole foods, starting at 6 months of age, and skips the puree feeding process all together. Foods are typically introduced as long finger foods that are easy for your baby to grab and take bites out of. Ideally, these are the same foods that the family is eating (modified for safety/nutritional considerations, of course). With baby led weaning, babies choose what and how much of a food is eaten. As we learn in my online course, the main goal is to introduce a variety of textures and to let the baby lead the feeding process entirely! Many traditional baby led weaning proponents are purists when it comes to this method. You’re either only letting your baby self-feed on finger foods or you’re just plain doing it wrong. Some believe that the spoon itself is inherently bad (since they assume parents are always shoving the spoon into their baby’s mouth and are not being responsive to baby’s needs). Others believe that purees themselves are the problem (and think that babies should ONLY be challenged with finger food textures).
P.S. My personal approach is flexible and is based on both following the baby’s lead and mixing the two approaches, if needed. Focusing on finger food introduction earlier and often is for sure something I really advocate for, however it’s not as strict as many traditional baby led weaning advocates preach it should be. That’s why I changed the wording from “baby led weaning” to “baby led feeding”. You can read more about my definition of baby led feeding here.
So now that we know a bit about the two main methods, you’re probably wondering what approach you should use. Let’s dig a little deeper into some of the pros and cons for each feeding approach!
Puree Feeding – Pros and Cons
We’ll start with some of the benefits of puree feeding:
It makes it easier to quantify how much food is being eaten
You know how every parent obsesses about whether or not their child ate enough? Well, with puree feeding, it’s easier to quantify how much food goes in (or is actually swallowed). Sometimes with finger foods, pieces may get thrown on the floor or mashed onto the highchair tray, or end up all over their face, and so it makes it harder to tell how much they actually ate. Puree feeding can help put parents at ease when they know they can regurgitate a set number of tbsp. eaten to their doctor 😛
It’s often a less messy process
Throwing food on the floor and mushing it on the highchair tray isn’t exactly a tidy process. Puree feeding let’s parents easily feed their baby with a spoon, leaving little to no mess to clean up at the end. This makes feeding a lot easier for parents who want to feed their baby on the go, or for those who just don’t want a big mess to clean up at the end of mealtime! Note: I’m not a fan of scraping food off of a baby’s chin and lips. Letting them be a bit messy is actually beneficial to accepting all textures and engaging all senses in the feeding process. But overall, yes, it is less messy 🙂
It reduces the worry around how much high-iron foods are being consumed in the beginning
Since parents are able to control what foods baby eats in puree feeding (aka they choose the food, offer it as the only option, and baby either eats it or doesn’t), there is less room to worry about whether they’re getting enough of one of the most important nutrients for growth and development for babies….iron! In baby led weaning, your baby can still be offered foods high in iron, but the decision is up to them whether they choose to eat it or not! They might choose other foods on the plate to eat instead, which can stress parents out sometimes. Furthermore, in the beginning while they’re just learning to chew, the actual ingestion of high iron foods, like meat, might be harder. That all being said, research shows that when parents were instructed on including one iron rich food option per meal when doing BLW, there was no difference in iron status between puree fed and BLW babies after 12 months. Education on how to do things right, in both situations, is a big factor for sure.
It’s easier for anxious parents who are scared of gagging
Gagging can be scary for new parents, especially in the early stages of introducing solids. Although it’s completely natural for babies to gag when trying out new foods and textures, it can be stressful on some parents who may have anxiety about choking, and are unsure of the difference between gagging and choking. It’s reasonable to say that, generally speaking, babies usually gag more in the beginning with baby led weaning compared to puree feeding. However, gagging can still happen with puree feeding and, once finger foods are introduced months later, gagging is still likely to happen at that point. So, it is sort of inevitable. That being said, easing in with purees works for many parents as more of a slow, or gradual, transition.
Now, let’s get into the cons of puree feeding:
It’s easier for parents to get ‘pushy’ with the spoon
So you know how I mentioned above that us parents sometimes get preoccupied with how much our babies are eating? We assume a few things like:
- Babies need to eat the same amount of food each meal
- Babies should be finishing a whole jar’s worth of baby food
- Babies can’t regulate their appetite and know how much solid food they need at each meal
These are all FALSE! You can check out this blog post for more info if you’re worried about how much your baby is eating, but please, please know that you CAN trust your baby to regulate their own appetite, and their appetite will fluctuate day-by-day and possibly, meal-to-meal. It’s funny, isn’t it, how we can trust them to know how much breast milk to drink, but with solids we all of a sudden assume they lost this innate talent?! So, long story short, we want to trust our babies, but… being worried parents… the truth is, we often don’t.
I mention the difficulty trusting our babies because, with puree feeding, this can lead parents to get pushy with a spoon. This means, your baby clearly shows signs of being done with a meal, and we continue to push the spoon up to their lips, plead with them, play games with them, and even distract them to be able to sneak in “just another bite” of something when they don’t necessarily want it. However, this only teaches babies to override their hunger and fullness cues, and eat a predetermined amount that we deem to be necessary or sufficient. Note: this doesn’t HAVE to happen when spoon feeding, but it’s much easier to fall into this trap, sometimes without noticing.
It’s easier for babies to get stuck on purees for too long
So traditionally, babies who are puree fed may not get introduced to real finger foods until 9, 10, 11, or even 12 months of age (and no…puffs and rice crackers don’t count as finger foods). What can happen is your baby can get “stuck” on purees, meaning, they get so used to them and haven’t developed their oral motor skills enough in earlier months with different textures, that they refuse more advanced finger foods later on. Giving babies time to explore new and more challenging textures is very important in oral motor skill development, like tongue movement, and it helps in decreasing picky eating. This is why purees should only be used for a short time, and why I encourage you to move them on to different foods by no later than 9 months! You can read more about the reasons why I recommend starting textured finger foods early on in a guest blog post I did here.
It can be more time consuming
When you have to make a separate meal for your baby from the rest of the family, that’s time spent. Freezing food and waiting for it to thaw out, that’s more time spent. And then when you have to sit and feed your baby, wait until they’re done, and then sit and feed yourself, that’s even more time spent. Plus, less opportunity for family meals, and more eating at separate times.
Baby Led Weaning (BLW) – Pros and Cons
Now let’s talk a bit about the pros and cons of introducing your baby to solids using the baby led weaning approach. Beginning with the pros:
BLW promotes self-regulation of food and supports the division of responsibility
The division of responsibility is the golden theory for feeding kids and fostering a healthy relationship with food. Read more about it in my blog post here. In a nutshell, for babies this means that we provide the food, and they choose when to eat (based on hunger cues), whether to eat or not, and how much to eat from the food we provide (this goes for solids and for milk). With baby led weaning, your baby gets to choose which foods they want to eat (out of the foods that have been provided) and how much they want…completely freely! They can listen to their hunger and fullness cues and stay in control of the process. AKA…it’s fully baby led and not parent led.
It promotes earlier oral motor skill development
By letting babies jump right into exploring solid foods for themselves, they’re able to start developing their oral motor skills at an earlier stage than babies who start off with puree feeding. By offering a variety of textures to try, babies will get more practice learning how to bite, chew, move the food around in their mouth, and swallow food of all types. This allows them to handle all sorts of textures and can decrease pickiness as toddlers. Baby led weaning also allows the baby to develop the motor skills to pick up pieces of food and utilize utensils more easily.
It promotes sensory exploration of food and exposes them to more new flavours!
Food exploration with all 5 senses is a big positive with BLW! When babies (and toddlers) are able to touch, smell, squish, lick, and explore food with all 5 senses, they learn more about it. They familiarize themselves with the properties of a food more, making them more comfortable with it, which in turn helps prevent picky eating. BLW babies are also shown to have had more exposure to a variety of foods and flavours by 1 year of age, compared to puree fed babies. This is most definitely a good base to have to prevent pickiness down the road, and can promote greater acceptance to different foods and flavours in toddlerhood.
BLW enables a family mealtime environment!
In this approach, babies are able to sit at the table to eat at the same time as the rest of the family during mealtime and it enables them to eat the same foods (or a simpler variation of the same foods). This is important because family meal times provide an opportunity for babies to actually learn how to eat by modelling family members, and it encourages babies to try new foods when they are eating the same foods as the rest of the family. It also helps them see mealtime as a positive social or connecting event, and it even has a positive impact in language development!
On the other side of the equation, here are a few of the cons with baby led weaning:
It will be messy!
Don’t be surprised if your baby ends the meal with food all over the place – the floor, the highchair tray, their face…you name it! While a baby is busy exploring all of these new textures, it’s safe to say that it will be messy. But as mentioned above, this is the price to pay for allowing sensory exploration and the benefits that brings!
BLW might mean less food is consumed…in the beginning
One of the biggest concerns with baby led weaning is that babies don’t get enough food in! While yes, in the beginning it may be challenging for them to get in a lot of food, we need to keep in mind that milk is still going to be the main source of calories for babies and that, with practice, they will learn how to eat in the quantities they need. Research shows that total energy intake was the same between BLW and puree fed babies, so unless there is a medical reason indicated by your doctor not to go the BLW route, you can rest assured that studies show that babies’ growth isn’t affected via BLW.
What Do the Regulatory Guidelines Say?
Health Canada, the Canadian Pediatric Society, and the Breastfeeding Committee for Canada all recommend that babies should be introduced to finger foods around 6-12 months of age with a gradual progress in textures to encourage self-feeding. This means introducing a variety of foods with soft textures, like minced or pureed meals, then progressing to more challenging finger foods, like dry cereals and small chunks of fruits. They recommend introducing babies to modified forms of family meals by the time they reach one year of age.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says that solid foods (whether finger foods or purees) can be introduced starting around 6 months of age, and it is recommended that babies are exposed to a wide variety of healthy foods and a variety of textures!
So overall, even they state that there is no one right or wrong approach to start with!
Do I Have to Choose Just One?
No, you definitely do not. An alternative approach to solely using the puree method or the baby led weaning method, is using a mixed approach in which both methods are combined so you can get the best of both worlds!
At the end of the day, what’s most important is finding the method that works best for YOU and YOUR baby! What works for another family might not be what’s best for yours. Regardless of what feeding method you choose, the most important thing you can do is listen to your baby and follow their cues. This means feeding your baby when they show that they want food and stopping when they are no longer interested. Babies have no problem letting their parents know when they don’t want something, so it’s important to try to take note of that and pay attention to their cues.
As long as your baby is able to experiment with new foods and progress through the different textures, they are right on track. If you need help ensuring that you are feeding in a baby led way, that your baby is being gently nudged along the texture timeline, and that you are progressing them and developing their skills and love for all food textures and flavours, my Baby Led Feeding online course is for you! It’s got everything you need to know to feed your baby from 6 months – 12 months of age, laid out in a step-by-step format so you can confidently raise them to be adventurous food lovers who are eating all of the same foods as you!