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I heard about baby led weaning for the first time when my first baby was about four months old. The concept is that instead of spoon feeding pureed foods as her first solids, you instead let her feed herself large pieces of soft whole food so she can learn to chew, work the food around in the mouth, and decide for herself how much is right to swallow.
I thought it sounded both amazing and slightly terrifying... I didn't know anyone who fed their kids like this so how could it possibly be safe? How would she be able to chew without teeth? Wouldn't she choke?
The amazing won over and I decided to go all in. I've since fed all three of my children with the method.
While baby led weaning is not a specifically vegan concept, it fits so well with my general philosophy on food. At the most fundamental level, I believe in real food. I eat real food and I want my children to enjoy it as much as I do, so it made sense to feed them real food from the beginning, rather than mixing in pureed peas with pureed pears to cover up the flavor.
I also had seen so many moms steaming, blending, and straining food every day and it just doesn't look fun.
I believe that if children are taught to eat until they decide they are done they won't struggle with will power and overeating as adults. I want my children to decide for themselves when they've had enough. I don’t want to spoon feed them until I decide they're done. I’d rather let them dig in and eat as much or as little as they want.
What I quickly found was that she would stop when she was done and she'd let me know. She’d sit back in her seat like she just ate Thanksgiving dinner when she was a tiny baby. Then she graduated to tossing food on the ground when she was done, and then to pushing the plate away from her when she was done. As a 3-year-old, she'd announce she was done and either ask for fruit, sit with us until we finish, or ask to go play.
I believe that one of the most important things you can teach a child is respect for their body by eating real food. They decide how much; I just decide what they eat. Rather than teaching will power and learning to resist eating some junky food they want to eat, this way of eating instead teaches that food gives them power and energy and makes them feel good.
There are many times when she's eating something I consider a treat food (bagel with cream cheese, a waffle, pancakes, or a homemade pudding) where she leaves several bites left in the container and says she's done. She does not stuff herself just to get to the bottom of a dish.
On top of all that, it’s just cool to see your toddler eating every kind of food with her fork and spoon, drinking from a glass, and stopping when she’s done. There’s no negotiating going on in our house. I don’t cook multiple meals to satisfy different people. Our kids eat what we eat, and they like it. Truly!
Look how quickly I have to pull my camera out before a baby can grab something on her plate...
Interest in food doesn't mean physical readiness. Babies will often start getting pretty interested in what you’re eating around 4-5 months old, but a lot of that is just interest in everything, not necessarily in eating. So hold off until 6 months.
One day when my baby was sitting on my lap at the table she reached out and grabbed a piece of bok choy and shoved it in her mouth before I could stop her. I took that as a sign that she wanted to eat. After that we started more seriously.
And don’t worry, feeding your baby real food isn’t going to make them wean before they’re ready. The name really should be more like baby led eating or baby led feeding rather than baby led weaning. My daughters didn't stop breastfeeding until they were 3 years old.
To begin with, I chose simple foods like baked sweet potatoes and very soft pears. At first they aren’t really eating much, it’s more just learning the sensation of food in their mouth. Not much will really make it in their mouth, and of what does get in there, a lot will get spit out. The rest is smashed between their fingers, in their fists, rubbed on their face, and generally played with.
We would make simple adjustments to the foods to make it easier for her to hold them; either cutting them in thick sticks, in "chips" like the sweet potatoes above, or coring a pear and leaving the hole in the middle so she could wedge her thumb in and hold it better. I'd sometimes leave the pear skin on and if she couldn't handle it she'd just push that piece to the front of her mouth and it would fall out.
You want to avoid small chunks that they could choke on. The idea behind baby led weaning is they decide how much goes in their mouth and if you cut a small piece, you are deciding and the baby is therefore not as aware of what they have in their mouth. It's all about the mouth feel at this point.
Stick shaped pieces are the key to the first parts of baby led weaning. Sticks are the perfect shape for tiny hands to hold and manipulate to their mouths. At this point your baby won't be able to open their fist to drop food.
Like with all things with babies, it's amazing to watch them grow and learn the gross motor skills to manage eating real food. At first they can't open their fist so anything inside it is lost forever to them, but then they start to move that food up and out of their fist. It seemed to me that she had a great handle on her pincher grip pretty early on, and I have to think that's because she was highly motivated to use her thumb and forefinger.
A great book with tips on the developmental milestones of eating, including tips on what to feed and when is Baby Led Weaning. Simple, straight-to-the-point title. I got the most recent edition that has recipes. You’ll see that they do endorse eating meat and dairy, which I clearly don’t, but I just skipped over that section and used the recipes just as general ideas. This book definitely helped me figure out what size pieces of food to offer at what stage.
There just wasn't a book available for vegans who wanted to feed their kids with this method, so I ended up making my own digital book called Baby Led Weaning for Vegans! You can read more about it on this page or check it out on Amazon.
When you start cooking food, the main food guideline to remember is not to add salt or sugar to their food until they’re one year old. That may seems restrictive, but it’s pretty simple and self-explanatory. I’d just cook without it and then we’d salt our own plates at the table.
My pediatrician said at our 9-month appointment that she could officially eat anything we ate. I think she also mentioned that we should wait on honey, but since we don't eat it I sort of blanked out and don't remember exactly.
We did hold off on giving her whole grains for a long time, until she was almost one. I don't have as much knowledge on this because I just blindly followed what a lot of other baby led weaning parents seemed to be saying. We waited much longer after that to do any type of processed foods like crackers, bread, and cereal.
The part that terrified me about baby led weaning was the potential for choking, obviously. I’m built like all moms; with the intense need to keep my baby safe, and I really worried that choosing to feed her whole pieces of food was taking a chance at hurting her. The reason I ultimately chose it was because I read that baby led feeding actually allows the baby to learn to control food in her mouth and prevents her from accidentally choking.
The idea is that when a baby learns to eat purees first, they expect food to dissolve in their mouth and they develop their sucking and swallowing impulse rather than their chewing and swallowing mechanism. If we start with food they need to chew, it gets them on the right track immediately.
When I first heard this, the paranoid voice in my head said, “how can they chew without teeth? They’ll choke!” A. It’s best to start with very soft food that they can gum easily and B. You have to trust that the human body was designed perfectly. Cave people didn’t puree food and their babies did just fine. It’s rare for a baby to choke, but it can happen. I personally felt relatively secure in knowing that I’d taken an infant CPR class and knew that I would just have to take her out of her seat, flip her onto my leg, and hit her on her back in between her shoulder blades.
That being said, just thinking about doing that makes my heart race. I have not had to, and I hope never to be in that situation. From what I read, most parents who practice baby led weaning also have not had their baby actually choke.
Most have had their baby gag on food, and it can be pretty scary and stressful, I’m not going to lie. Especially at the beginning when she was first learning to eat, there were several times where I gave up for the night and just handed her some apple sauce.
Babies gag more than adults not just because they’re developing their mouth control, but also because their gag reflex is located closer to the front of their mouths than us. Sometimes I’d see the inside of her mouth when she was gagging and it seems like the gag sensor is somewhere in the middle of their tongue. This is totally brilliant design. If your baby starts trying to swallow something that’s too big, before it evens gets to their throat they will hack it back to the front.
It can be difficult to know whether your baby is choking or gagging, as my pediatrician (who practiced baby led weaning with her children) let me know. There are a plethora of videos on the internet you can watch to get a good idea of what it looks like.
I definitely recommend taking a CPR class, regardless of how you feed your baby, so you can learn about the signs and how to handle it. Essentially, if your baby is coughing, it’s better to let her work the food out on her own rather than interfere. Current guidelines tell you not to swipe your finger in their mouth to try to remove the food because you can instead accidentally push the food deeper into their throat or damage something in their mouth.
If they cannot breathe, it’s time to flip them and knock them in between their shoulder blades. Again, as I say all this on this page, I am not a doctor or a CPR instructor, or any type of expert. I’m just a parent who took a class and has experience feeding her baby this way.
I’ve been told more than once that it’s amazing that my baby eats things that most other babies don’t want to eat. Like mushrooms, and peppers, and raw onions. She helps me cook and we talk about food and smell spices and pick vegetables and herbs from our garden. I can feel good about the start I’ve given her by choosing baby led weaning.
I spent three years making food for my baby, then toddler, then preschooler and taking photos of the food and of her cute little hands picking up the food. My goal was to put together a downloadable cookbook for anyone who wanted to feed their children the same way.
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