10 Tips for Talking to Family Members About Baby-Led Weaning

Talking to family about baby-led weaning. Picture of baby with head down on table.

Letting baby self-feed is a novel concept for many people. The culture of spoon-feeding permeates many walks of life. Once you see baby thrive with a finger-food first approach, it’s easy to support it, but that doesn’t mean your family members will agree!

As the holidays approach, here are some talking points to have in your pocket for skeptical family members:

  1. Baby food was invented. And it was originally made for babies, women, and the elderly with “sensitive digestive systems.” Before the 1920s, there was no such thing as baby food. Babies ate modified versions of whatever the family ate. There is an entire book on the subject called Inventing Baby Food if you are curious…1
  2. The research on baby feeding shows there is a critical window for introducing textured food, which is only from 6-9 months old. If textured food isn’t introduced during this window, there’s increased likelihood of texture aversion, chewing issues, and picky eating.2 3 4
  3. Healthcare professionals today encourage offering fresh whole foods over processed foods. Plus, research shows that baby food has traceable levels of heavy metals, including arsenic.5 6 In fact, the FDA even issued a warning about rice cereal last year.7
  4. I hear you are worried about choking but actually the research shows that starting finger foods at 6 months old and feeding babies like this is just as safe as starting with purées.8 In fact, there’s no research that suggests spoon-feeding is necessary. And many infant swallowing specialists today believe the early introduction of finger food may actually help baby learn to be a safer eater, sooner.
  5. Spoon-feeding purées does little for oral-motor development and can perpetuate a suck-to-swallow oral-motor pattern that isn’t safe for managing chewable foods. Purees don’t trigger the chew reflex. Babies know how to suck and swallow but they need to learn how to move food to the side of their mouth and chew it. Research shows that allowing 6-12-month-old babies practice with developmentally appropriate foods that require chewing is safe and necessary for advancing oral-motor skills.9 10
  6. Between 6-9 months, babies have strong protective reflexes against choking. These reflexes begin fading after 9 months of age.11 12 Which means it’s actually safer and easier for baby start on finger foods from 6 to 9 months than it is for a toddler later on.
  7. A baby’s windpipe is about the size of a drinking straw—a large piece of chicken isn’t going to get stuck there, but a small green pea might. Plus, a baby’s brain is much more likely to feel and recognize that big piece of chicken rather than a tiny pea. Even if a small pea-sized bite breaks off the chicken, research shows that the body is primed to spit out or safely swallow that piece of food while actively engaged in chewing.13
  8. While research has yet to be published about this, leading infant feeding experts have observed that it’s easier to unintentionally overfeed a baby by spoon-feeding purées, which can cause constipation. Overfeeding can also cause an undesirable decrease in breast/human milk or formula feeds, which are nutritionally critical until 12 months of age.
  9. A primary way to prevent picky eating is for baby to share the family meal and have caregivers eat the same things as the baby.14 15 16
  10. Research shows that everyone—including babies and adults—are safest eating when self-feeding. Being fed increases the risk of choking.17 18

If none of these points help convince the questioning family member, politely end with: “Well, this is what I’ve decided to do with my baby. I see the benefits and I hope you’ll support me in it one day.” 

  1. Bentley, A. (2014). Inventing Baby Food: Taste, Health, and the Industrialization of the American Diet. University of California Press.
  2. Harris, G., & Mason, S. (2017). Are There Sensitive Periods for Food Acceptance in Infancy? Current Nutrition Reports, 6(2), 190–196. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13668-017-0203-0
  3. Coulthard, H., Harris, G., & Emmett, P. (2009). Delayed introduction of lumpy foods to children during the complementary feeding period affects child’s food acceptance and feeding at 7 years of age. Maternal & Child Nutrition, 5(1), 75–85. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1740-8709.2008.00153.x
  4. Du Plessis, L., Kruger, H., & Sweet, L. (2013). II. Complementary feeding: a critical window of opportunity from six months onwards. South African Journal of Clinical Nutrition26(S), S129-S140. Retrieved from http://sajcn.co.za/index.php/SAJCN/article/view/757
  5. McCarthy, C., MD. (2021, March 5). Heavy metals in baby food? What parents should know and do. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/heavy-metals-in-baby-food-what-parents-should-know-and-do-2021030522088
  6. Heavy Metals in Baby Food. (2021). HealthyChildren.Org. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/baby/feeding-nutrition/Pages/Metals-in-Baby-Food.aspx
  7. Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. (2020, August 5). Guidance for Industry: Action Level for Inorganic Arsenic in Rice Cereals for Infants. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/regulatory-information/search-fda-guidance-documents/guidance-industry-action-level-inorganic-arsenic-rice-cereals-infants
  8. Fangupo, L. J., Heath, A. L. M., Williams, S. M., Erickson Williams, L. W., Morison, B. J., Fleming, E. A., Taylor, B. J., Wheeler, B. J., & Taylor, R. W. (2016). A Baby-Led Approach to Eating Solids and Risk of Choking. PEDIATRICS, 138(4), e20160772. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2016-0772
  9. ngupo, L. J., Heath, A. L. M., Williams, S. M., Erickson Williams, L. W., Morison, B. J., Fleming, E. A., Taylor, B. J., Wheeler, B. J., & Taylor, R. W. (2016). A Baby-Led Approach to Eating Solids and Risk of Choking. PEDIATRICS, 138(4), e20160772. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2016-0772
  10. Harris, G., & Mason, S. (2017). Are There Sensitive Periods for Food Acceptance in Infancy? Current Nutrition Reports, 6(2), 190–196. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13668-017-0203-0
  11. Harris, G., & Mason, S. (2017). Are There Sensitive Periods for Food Acceptance in Infancy? Current Nutrition Reports, 6(2), 190–196. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13668-017-0203-0
  12. Coulthard, H., Harris, G., & Emmett, P. (2009). Delayed introduction of lumpy foods to children during the complementary feeding period affects child’s food acceptance and feeding at 7 years of age. Maternal & Child Nutrition, 5(1), 75–85. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1740-8709.2008.00153.x
  13. Shune, S. E., Moon, J. B., & Goodman, S. S. (2016). The Effects of Age and Preoral Sensorimotor Cues on Anticipatory Mouth Movement During Swallowing. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 59(2), 195–205. https://doi.org/10.1044/2015_jslhr-s-15-0138
  14. Taylor, C. M., & Emmett, P. M. (2018). Picky eating in children: causes and consequences. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 78(02), 161–169. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0029665118002586
  15. Emmett, P. M., Hays, N. P., & Taylor, C. M. (2018). Antecedents of picky eating behaviour in young children. Appetite, 130, 163–173. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2018.07.032
  16. Gregory, J. E., Paxton, S. J., & Brozovic, A. M. (2011). Maternal feeding practices predict fruit and vegetable consumption in young children. Results of a 12-month longitudinal study. Appetite, 57(1), 167–172. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2011.04.012
  17. Fangupo, L. J., Heath, A. L. M., Williams, S. M., Erickson Williams, L. W., Morison, B. J., Fleming, E. A., Taylor, B. J., Wheeler, B. J., & Taylor, R. W. (2016). A Baby-Led Approach to Eating Solids and Risk of Choking. PEDIATRICS, 138(4), e20160772. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2016-0772
  18. Hemsley, B., Steel, J., Sheppard, J. J., Malandraki, G. A., Bryant, L., & Balandin, S. (2019). Dying for a Meal: An Integrative Review of Characteristics of Choking Incidents and Recommendations to Prevent Fatal and Nonfatal Choking Across Populations. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 28(3), 1283–1297. https://doi.org/10.1044/2018_ajslp-18-0150
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