Why Finger Food First?

a baby eats chicken when starting solids
Max, 8 months, eats chicken.

Most parents we know start their baby’s journey into solid food by spoon-feeding rice cereal or purées because that’s what their pediatrician advised them to do, or simply because it’s the way it’s always been done before.

But has spoon-feeding always been the way that babies were fed? And what was done before all the jars, pouches, and fancy blenders?

Baby food as we know it—thin, watery purées of carrots and sweet potatoes—didn’t exist until the late 1920’s. In fact, records show that in 1880, babies were not even commonly fed solid food at all until they were 11 months old.1 Today, the general consensus is to introduce solid food around 6 months of age.

Before the invention of baby food, there was just food. Sometimes strained, sometimes pre-chewed or mashed, but whole foods in a variety of textures and forms. Even the first baby foods to hit the market included products like beef-vegetable soup, liver, and veal—nutritious foods rich in iron and varying textures.

Preparing solid food for babies can be exhausting. It’s not hard to imagine how spoon-feeding sweet purées became more popular as commercial baby food became more available and affordable. Like many cultural shifts in the U.S., we got to where we are today—a land of perfectly pretty pouches of baby food—because it was easier.

Aside from setting babies up on a path to prefer sweet and perfectly smooth food, spoon-feeding thin, watery food does little for the development of oral motor skills. In a lot of ways, purées require a baby to hold back: instead of reaching for things and putting them in their mouth as they instinctively are wired to do, they wait for the food to arrive and open their mouth.

Caden, 7 months, eats a strawberry with his fingers.
a baby reaches for a beet
Adie, 6 months, reaches for a roasted beet.

A Baby Food Revolution

As more parents seek to feed their babies minimally processed foods—and as picky eating, concerns about toxic metals in baby food, and allergies are on the rise—baby food as we know it is coming into question.

So what if that first food wasn’t puréed sweet potatoes but rather a whole banana to munch on? Or a piece of steamed broccoli? It turns out that babies have a number of built in reflexes to manage finger food as early as 6 months of age—reflexes that help them bite, chew, swallow and if need be, push the food forward and out of the mouth. Starting solids with finger food not only works these reflexes more than spoon-feeding, but it rapidly advances oral motor skills.

More often than not, babies don’t wait for us to control their developmental milestones. They roll, crawl, stand, sit, and walk mostly without our help. So why when we see developmental advances toward eating—reaching for food and bringing objects to their mouths—why would we interrupt this process?

a 9 month old baby smiling with purple dragon fruit on her tray
Amelia, 9 months, smiles as she finishes her purple dragon fruit.

What is Finger Food First?

The approach to introducing solid foods to babies that we advocate for here—Finger Food First—is based on a method that sprouted up in the U.K. called “baby-led weaning.” In short, baby-led weaning is a way of introducing solid food that skips over purées and spoon-feeding entirely and relies on a baby’s natural instinct to bring food to their mouth. With baby-led weaning, babies are trusted to take the lead on when they are ready to wean from the breast or the bottle and feed themselves independently.

Finger Food First is exactly what it sounds like: making it a priority to offer your baby those foods that can be eaten with their fingers before other types of food. While you can offer a pre-loaded spoon for your baby to grab ahold of and suck on, the priority is to let your baby handle food the way nature intended it: with their fingers.

With Finger Food First, your baby can eat a bit of what you eat (be sure to hold the salt) and can join you at the table from Day One of solids. You can explore hundreds of foods, spices, and cuisines as long as foods are cooked well done, sodium levels are kept low or nonexistent, and choking hazards are modified to be safe.

As any parent will tell you, the only thing 6 month old babies want to do is bring things to their mouths to taste, bite, and munch on. Finger Food First offers your baby the opportunity to explore a wide variety of tastes and textures, to set their own pace, and establish a healthy relationship with food, and to discover the pure joy of eating.

The best part? It’s easier.

Julian, 12 months, eats nori seaweed.
Zeke, 14 months, finishes his meal.

Read for more? Go to baby-led weaning or browse our guides and videos.

  1. A. Bentley, Inventing Baby Food, University of California Press, 2014, p. 10