If you are contemplating Baby Led Weaning for your baby, chances are you have joined one of the numerous support groups on Facebook or followed some bloggers. And I am sure that within days of doing that you came across a belief that Baby Led Weaning approach and feeding purees with a spoon are mutually exclusive.
I have heard the same questions from dozens and dozens of concerned parents. Is it safe to start with purees and introduce finger foods shortly afterward? Is it ok to start with both textures? Will it increase my baby’s risk of choking?
This belief is rooted in the hypothesis that purées teach babies how to swallow before they learn how to chew and finger foods are the other way around. Because of that, babies may try to swallow pieces of finger foods before chewing them. So to switch from spoon feeding purees to BLW, it is critical to stop all solids for a few weeks and then start from a clean slate with finger foods only.
Sounds scary and complicated but is it true?
I never saw any research study confirming the risk of the mixed or combined method of starting solids. My own experience starting solids with my three kids and working with hundreds of families also suggests its safety. In fact, this is the method I am promoting and teaching in my ebook Starting Solids: the Stress-Free Way, because I believe that being attuned to babies’ abilities and feeding is a responsive way is more important than following any strict feeding philosophy. As a pediatric dietitian, I also know that spoon feeding nutritional iron-rich purees helps close the potential nutritional gap for those kids who are slow to catch up on self-feeding.
But still, I decided to ask top feeding specialists outside of the nutrition field, with much more knowledge about oral motor development I will ever have, to help me get to the bottom of this issue once and for all.
Is there anything I am missing? Is it that risky to combine finger foods and purees?
Do feeding experts think it is dangerous to combine finger foods and purees?
Here are their thoughts (italics are mine):
Alisha Grogan, pediatric occupational therapist and founder of yourkidstable.com:
“I recommend and personally practice a combined method. I’ve never read anything in the literature to indicate any cause for concern. Eating purees and eating finger foods are two different skills and the sensory properties of each of the foods are huge clues to the baby on what they should do with each of the foods (swallow or chew).
That’s why the mixed texture stage 3 baby foods aren’t a good idea! Sorting pieces out of purees to be chewed is a much more advanced skill that babies don’t graduate to until they can successfully eat both purees and finger foods. Some babies manage them just fine because they ignore the chunks and just swallow it all down.”
Melanie Potock, pediatric speech-language pathologist and founder of mymunchbug.com:
“The concept that babies should learn to chew safely before learning to swallow is not based on how children develop feeding skills from birth. First, babies learn to swallow safely via breast or bottle feeding. Ultra-smooth baby purees are essentially one type of thickened liquid and are an excellent next step to introducing a subtle change in texture and graduating to swallowing one form of solid food.
A thickened liquid has been shown via research to be easier to manage and control in the mouth. Next, babies learn to manipulate heavier forms of solid foods that can still be mashed between the tongue and the gums or palate.
For parents who prefer to start with safe pieces of soft foods, know that baby still knows how to swallow and will swallow some pieces of unchewed food. The “squishy” texture of the food is key. Babies develop a mature chewing and swallowing pattern over time, as they learn to move their tongue in a different way from breast or bottle feeding.
By starting with these” squish and swallow” foods, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and in Baby Self-Feeding: Solutions for Introducing Purees and Solids to Create Lifelong Healthy Eating Habits (Ripton and Potock) baby learns to smash, chew and swallow the food comfortably.
Although gagging can be a protective mechanism for babies, it’s not foolproof. And, babies who gag frequently will associate eating with discomfort. Like any phase of development, occasional gagging is to be expected, just like taking a tumble when first learning to walk. By using purees and squishable foods first, the baby develops the oral skills to eventually learn to eat more advanced foods.
Offering both types of solids is fine, just not on the same spoon. As a speech-language pathologist who specializes in feeding and mouth development, I suggest to parents that purees be served at the same meal, but not by alternating puree and squishable solids. Try instead to offer purees as one course, a bit like a lovely thickened soup before the entrée appears!”
What does the Baby Led Weaning book say?
I also carefully looked through the Baby Led Weaning book by Gill Rapley to find any clues to the origin of the belief that using a mixed method, or combining purees and finger foods increases the risk of choking. All I could find was encouragement to introduce finger foods at any point, even after a few weeks of purees.
The only case where Rapley recommends reverting back to 100% milk or formula diet before starting Baby Led Weaning is when a baby is younger than 6 months and has been started on purees already. But there is no reference or mention in the book that this step is required for choking prevention.
Taking into consideration the opinions of two feeding experts and the creator and pioneer of the Baby Led Weaning movement, I think I can safely assume that combining finger foods and purees is perfectly safe.
Top tips to make the mixed approach work for your baby
I hope this post helps clarify at least some of the confusion around starting solids.
I would like to leave you with a few tips to help you introduce finger foods safely, regardless of your baby’s age:
- Regardless of the feeding approach you choose, helping your baby to enjoy a variety of foods and build self-feeding skills are the priorities. Controlling how much or what your baby chooses to eat are not.
- It is ok to introduce finger foods at any point even after you have started your baby on purees.
Be prepared that older babies who have not had previous experience with finger foods may experience more gagging initially.
- Some babies may be confused if finger foods and purees are fed simultaneously and that’s why stage 3 baby foods maybe the most challenging texture for many. But it is ok to serve purees and finger foods as different courses of the same meal.
- When choosing finger foods to your baby, make sure they pass the “squish” test when you press them between your fingers. You can get 65 safe finger food ideas here.
- To help your older baby learn to self feed in a relaxed and efficient way, let her play with finger foods outside mealtimes, when she is not hungry and less likely to get frustrated while learning.
Curious about the mixed way to start solids and need a step-by-step plan with videos, recipes, meal plans, and sample schedules? Check my ebook bundle Starting Solids: the Stress-Free way.
Your baby is unique.
So why copy how everyone else is starting solids? Welcome your baby into the wonderful world of food using this safe and responsive method.