If you are contemplating Baby Led Weaning (BLW) for your baby or thought of combining BLW and spoon-feeding, 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 the Baby Led Weaning approach and spoon-feeding purees are mutually exclusive.
I have heard the same questions from dozens and dozens of concerned parents. Is it safe to combine BLW and spoon-feeding, or does it increase the risk of choking? 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 comes from 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, some people think that babies may try to swallow pieces of finger foods before chewing them. So to switch from purees to BLW, they think they should stop all solids for a few weeks and then start with a clean slate with finger foods only.
Is combining finger foods and purees dangerous?
Well, I have never seen any research study confirming the risk of combining BLW and spoon-feeding purees. My own experience of starting solids with my three kids and working with hundreds of families also suggests its safety.
In fact, combining BLW and spoon feeding is the method I am teaching in my online program Stress-Free Solids because I believe that being attuned to babies’ abilities and feeding in a responsive way is more important than following any strict feeding philosophy. This program helps start solids with your baby using the mixed approach (finger foods PLUS purees) and I have lost of videos of babies eating all kinds of textures, being fed with a spoon and playing with food, so that parents could see there is no one perfect way to do it.
As a pediatric dietitian, I also know that spoon-feeding nutritional iron-rich puree helps close the potential nutritional gap for those kids who are slow to catch up on self-feeding.
But I also understand that many parents are still nervous about combining finger foods and purees, so 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?
Is it dangerous to combine BLW and spoon-feeding?
Here are the answers from the feeding experts (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 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 an encouragement to introduce finger foods at any point, even after a few weeks of purees.
The only case where Rapley recommends reverting back to a 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 combined BLW and spoon feeding approach work
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 is 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 find it confusing if you feed finger foods and purees simultaneously and that’s why stage 3 baby foods may be 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 for 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 of mealtimes when she is not hungry and less likely to get frustrated while learning.
- Take a class! If you need expert support and a step-by-step plan with videos, a detailed explanation of all the transitions, recipes, nutritional guides, meal plans, and sample schedules, check my online program Stress-Free Solids.
Starting solids the easy, safe and stress-free way!
Let me show you how to feed your baby using the mixed approach, so you can be guided by your baby and not by a rigid philosophy.