Congratulations! You’ve made it through the chaos of the newborn weeks, figured out how to feed your growing baby, settled into a new routine and now you’re looking into how to go about baby-led weaning (BLW).
Whether you have been successfully breast, bottle or combination feeding your baby so far, moving onto solid foods is an exciting next step. For me, it signalled the beginning of the end of the proper baby baby phase and the start of teaching the vital skill of eating to my new favourite human.
In this guide I’m going to take you through the basics of baby-led weaning – what it is, why it’s a great way to introduce your baby to solids, and how to begin your journey. In particular, though, I’m going to talk about baby-led weaning in the context of plant-based, vegetarian or vegan baby-led weaning.
If you are omnivore, pescatarian, or flexitarian, this information should all still be very helpful to you. I’m just talking about plant-based babies specifically because that is what my daughter and I are – plus, I found it very difficult to find plant-based BLW resources when I was going through this process myself. It’s the guide to vegan and vegetarian baby-led weaning that I wish I’d had access to, so I hope you find it helpful!
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What is weaning a baby?
Weaning is the process of helping your baby gradually transition from an exclusively liquid diet (in the form of breastmilk, formula or both) to one where their sole source of nutrition is solid food.
It is very important to note that this process takes at least 6 months, usually more. In the case of babies who are exclusively breastfed, it can take years before your child gives up milk completely. This is perfectly biologically normative, as breastmilk and nursing provide a great many physical, emotional, psychological and developmental benefits way beyond babyhood.
The World Health Organisation and UNICEF recommend that babies are exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of life and then continue to be offered breastmilk until 2 years old, or older if mother and child are still happy to do so.
If you are feeding your baby formula either exclusively or in combination with breastmilk, you should still ensure that this is all they are given up to the age of 6 months. After the age of 12 months, they should be gaining more and more of their nutrition from solid food and can therefore start gradually moving away from formula and towards a plant-based milk.
What is baby-led weaning?
Baby-led weaning is not a new-fangled fad or even a particularly revolutionary approach to weaning – it is simply the traditional practice of gradually introducing different solid foods to your baby. The actual term “baby-led weaning” was first coined by infant and child feeding specialist Gail Rapley who wrote the definitive guide and foundational text on the subject. If you believe baby-led weaning is the right choice for you, I strongly urge you to buy this book as there have been a great many copycat texts and recipe books claiming to be baby-led weaning, but which flout even the most basic principles.
Rather than mushing up or puréeing solid food and spoon-feeding your baby, a practice that became popular in the mid-20th century, the BLW approach is to slowly introduce new foods to the point where the baby is eating the same food as their parents for every meal.
The initial stages of the baby-led weaning process are a bit slow (and messy!) but consist of offering new foods, in their simplest form, one at a time in order to successfully pinpoint any allergies. Baby is presented with the food and left to explore, rather than being “helped” to eat or spoon-fed by their parents. Gradually the baby learns how to chew, swallow and self-feed, thus eliminating the need to help them transition from purées to solid food further down the line.
You shouldn’t have to do a lot of extra work or make separate dishes for your baby in this journey. After introducing new foods one at a time (we started with steamed carrots) and then gradually adding more, you can simply give your baby the same as whatever you’re eating.
Throughout the baby-led weaning journey, babies learn how to develop hand-eye coordination, chewing, swallowing, spitting (sorry, it’s inevitable!), experience and navigate the gag reflex (more on gagging vs choking later) and experience the independence and autonomy that comes with self-feeding. They also experience sitting for a meal with their family rather than eating noticeably different food at different time and are given the trust and support they need to be able to self-regulate their food intake throughout their life.
Is baby-led weaning recommended?
No specific form of weaning is advocated by the NHS or the World Health Organisation. They simply recommend that weaning is done safely, at an appropriate age and with a basic awareness of the nutritional needs of small children.
What are the advantages of baby-led weaning?
The main advantages of baby-led weaning are:
It teaches your baby about food
When you think about it, a baby doesn’t learn a great deal about what an apple looks, feels and tastes like from boiled and puréed apple. The texture and taste is SO different from a plain old apple. This may not seem like a big deal but babies are hardwired to be learners, discoverers and sensory-seekers. Even the simplest everyday experiences teach them so much about the world and offering them food in its’ most basic form contributes to their learning and understanding.
Leads to easier and less time-consuming meal times
By introducing the principle early on that your baby eats what you eat, you can lay the groundwork for an older child who eats the same as you. This way you don’t need to cook separate meals for your children or have to work hard later on to get them to try new food.
It establishes trust in your baby’s abilities
By offering your baby the opportunity to start their weaning process in complete control of what and how much they eat, you’re establishing a general principle that your baby has as much right to feed (or not!) feed themselves as much as you do. This becomes incredibly important later on in the toddler years. I’m always surprised by the number of baby-led weaning fans who then go on to try and make their toddlers eat food they don’t want or like. Baby-led weaning should simply become child-led eating and therefore result in a kiddo who can self-regulate their food intake and listen to their hunger and fullness cues.
May lead to a more open-minded (less “picky”) eater
Now this sort of depends on what you think of as a “picky” eater. Not that I like that phrase as I find it an unhelpful label for a child who may just not want what is on offer at that particular time. In any case, while my baby-led weaned 2.5yo daughter Ursula does often suddenly take offence to a particular food type that she was perfectly fine with a week ago, she is always open-minded towards trying new food.
She also likes strong or sophisticated flavours often shunned by children her age such as olives, asparagus and miso marinades. She has her moments of refusing to eat, but as in the previous point I trust her to eat when she is hungry and stop when she is full. In terms of “pickiness” though, she is definitely open-minded to trying all sorts of foods and regularly surprises me with what she will eat.
I will be honest, baby-led weaning is a bit messy and you may well have days when you just can’t be bothered to tidy up the post-meal carnage off the floor, BUT… I promise you it is a LOT of fun, too. Babies generally love getting involved with their food, exploring the different textures, tastes and shapes you’re offering them, and it’s so much fun to watch as their parent. I also really enjoyed introducing Ursula to new foods and getting creative with my presentation of it. You may well have seen Instagram shots of people presenting their baby and toddler’s meals in adorable little bamboo animal-shaped plates – well, I FULLY embraced this trend and had a lot of fun doing it!
Babies learn how to eat safely
We’ll talk properly about choking risks shortly, but the process of exploring solid food instead of purées gives the baby the chance to learn more about what is chewable, what is not, how much a food needs to be chewed in order to swallow, and so on. This is a process they need to learn anyway so we may as well give them the chance earlier on to save a second food transition.
It’s easy and relatively stress-free
With baby-led weaning there’s no need for games, tricks, “here comes the big aeroplane” etc, or stressful hours spent trying to physically force food into your baby’s mouth as is the case with spoon-feeding. Nor do you need to try and trick your toddler into eating “healthy” food by hiding vegetables underneath elaborately decorated “kid friendly” meals, as they will have grown up used to just eating what you eat yourslf.
Now, I say it’s “relatively stress-free” because there IS mess involved with BLW (as with any weaning, to be honest). Personally I did get a bit stressed in the early days when Ursula was just making a mess and not actually swallowing any food – sometimes it felt like a whole load of effort for not much result.
Of course, as with most things there was a moment when things just clicked and she started to really enjoy eating, not just playing with the food. Gradually we could then wean her off formula and say goodbye to endless sterilising and her digestive issues cleared up in a flash. I can honestly say it was well worth sweeping up all those steamed carrots eventually!
Babies are included in meal times
Family meals are an amazing opportunity for babies to learn all about the social aspects of food too, not just the practicalities of how to eat. Everything from dinner-time conversation, etiquette, serving food for each other and any religious or cultural practices you may observe all add to a baby’s rich, sensory experience of the the world around them. Rather than separating a baby’s meal time off and into a gruelling mission to spoon feed them as much purée as possible before you both lose your minds and throw it across the room, baby gets to sit at the table and feed themselves just like everyone else.
If you’re wondering which baby high chairs or booster seats are best for baby-led weaning, I can highly recommend the Babydan Danchair:
The main advantages of the Babydan Danchair are that it is fits under a dining table like a regular chair, has highly adaptable and adjustable for your child as they grow and has the feeling of a “proper” chair rather than a baby chair. While this might not seem to matter too much now, once your baby hits the toddler years they’re very likely to start resisting anything that feels “babyish” to them and want to start doing things like the big people do. This chair can so easily be adapted for the needs of a “me-do-it” toddler when they get there so you don’t need to try and find a second, more “grown up” chair for them. Believe me, I’ve been there!
If you’re concerned about the wood looking a bit uncomfortable for your baby, a soft cushioned insert is also available.
Is baby-led weaning a choking hazard?
A lot of people may be concerned that going straight for solid, chunky foods may present a choking hazard to your baby. I myself got a lot of worried looks and well-meaning “advice” that I was endangering my baby’s health. I can categorically assure you that it is no more a choking risk than spoon-feeding your baby purée – in fact, it is likely to be LESS of a risk than soft foods, since the baby is control of the feeding themselves.
As long as your baby is sitting up straight and is controlling their own food intake, therefore able to control their own chewing and swallowing functions at the same time as putting the food in their mouth, they are perfectly safe.
What alarms people, however, is the gag reflex being regularly triggered during BLW. The gag reflex, as you most likely know, is a spasm of the throat that is triggered by the presence of a large object in one or more specific places in the mouth and/or throat.
In babies, the gag reflex is triggered much further forward than it is in adults and so they are more likely to gag in their initial feeding stages. This reflex is present in babies to the degree it is precisely so that the body can reject anything it can’t swallow and digest.
Gagging is NOT the same as choking, however, and although it looks and sounds alarming sometimes, it honestly poses no threat to your baby’s wellbeing.
Where gagging is a very noisy affair that often sounds terrible and involves a lot of facial movement from your baby, choking is a VERY different experience. If your baby is choking, they will be very silent (since the airway becomes blocked with the object) and they will turn blue.
While choking during any weaning process is unlikely, it is very important to know the difference between gagging and choking for your own piece of mind and ability to do something in an emergency. The NHS website has a full guide on how to prevent your child from choking at different ages and I highly recommend familiarising yourself with it.
You can also download the very excellent British Red Cross Paediatric First Aid app for free – it’s an amazing ad-free resource that I’ve had on my phone since Ursula was born and I was wracked with anxiety about something terrible happening to her. You can quickly look up what to do in any kind of emergency and it provides clear instructions, videos and images for you so that you can feel sure you are performing any procedures properly and in an age-appropriate form.
They also have information on how to any member of the public can book a British Red Cross Baby and Child First Aid Course for those of you who are particularly anxious about health and safety. I did a first aid workshop when Ursula was 3 months old and it really helped me become less anxious and more confident that I would be able to handle an emergency situation if (touch wood…!) it ever came up.
What age can you start baby-led weaning?
As I said earlier, your baby should be on an exclusively milk/formula diet until at 6 months of age and at this point you can begin your baby-led weaning journey if the following physical milestones are present in your baby:
- At least 6 months old (if baby was born prematurely, use their adjusted age)
- Able to sit upright unaided, holding their head steady by themselves
- Able to coordinate eyes and hands to the point where they can pick something up and put it in their mouth
- Has lost the tongue thrust reflex – this is where baby will automatically push foreign objects out of their mouth with their tongue and is their body’s way of protecting them from ingesting food or objects they are physically unable to process
However, the key phrase here is BABY-led weaning. Listen to and observe your baby and make a judgement based on them as to whether they are ready to begin the weaning process. Just because you CAN start weaning at 6 months doesn’t mean you HAVE to! Be intuitive about the right time to start.
You may also have practical reasons that will influence your decision. Baby-led weaning is messy and often hard, thankless work so you may want to hold off if you’re not in a good place at the moment. There may be medical reasons too.
I felt like it was the right decision to go ahead at 6 months because Ursula had long had terrible digestive problems and didn’t cope with formula (we combination fed) very well. I was advised by a paediatric dietician that her troubles would likely vanish once she started on solids, so I went for it. Whatever your circumstances, make the decision based on the milestones above AND what feels right for you and your baby.
Note: I am aware that the guidelines in some countries such as Australia state that you can introduce solids from as young as 4 months old. However research suggests that babies’ digestive system, enzyme levels and immune system are not sufficiently mature and consistent enough to be able to cope with digesting solid food until at least 6 months. I am writing in the UK where this underlies our 6 month recommendations, but I do appreciate that other countries have different recommendations and that you may choose to follow those rather than the UK’s.
Is it okay for a baby to be vegan or vegetarian?
Yes!! As is the case for adults, it is perfectly possible for babies to get all the nutrients they need from a vegan or vegetarian diet. BUT, as again is the case for plant-based adults, you do need to be conscientious of nutrition – not to say that you need to suddenly become a nutrition expert or anything, but a bad vegan or vegetarian diet is just as bad for you and your baby as a bad omnivore one. It is also potentially easier to fall into since certain nutrients are harder to come by on a plant-based diet. The main ones to consider during the baby-led weaning process are:
If you’re not planning to offer your baby eggs or dairy products, B12 is something you’ll need to be conscious of.
Vegan foods that contain B12 either naturally or through fortification include:
- Nutritional yeast flakes (e.g. Engevita)
- Plant-based milk alternatives including soy, almond and oat milks
- Soya yoghurts
Do check the labels of plant-based milks and yoghurts to ensure B12 content.
To be honest though, I would personally recommend making your life easy by choosing a children’s multivitamin that contains B12 so you know your baby is getting the recommended daily dose. Personally I give Ursula Nature’s Aid Mini Drops Multivitamins, which deliver Vitamins A, B, C and D. However, be aware that the Vitamin D is not vegan. I’ve spent more time than I care to calculate looking for a vegan child’s multivitamin drop in the UK that contains all the basics and doesn’t cost an absolute bomb. This is the closest I’ve managed to find but I’m keen to hear from anyone who has found a vegan alternative!
In all honesty, though, I’m plant-based rather than full-on vegan and Vitamin D isn’t an ethical hill I’m personally willing to die on. If you do feel strongly about it though and still want a high-quality Vitamin B12 supplement, Nature’s Aid do offer a vegan drop containing Vitamin B12, Zinc and Vitamin C called Immune Plus.
Omega-3 essential fatty acids are incredibly important for your baby’s brain development, as well as their sleep (so if that isn’t incentive enough to pay attention to it I don’t know what is!!). On a plant-based diet you’ll need to deliberately go in search of it. Some good vegan sources of omega-3 oils include:
- Flaxseed (linseed) oil or ground flaxseed
- Walnuts – babies should ONLY be given walnuts that have been ground up to reduce the risk of choking
- Ground chia seeds
- Hemp seeds and oil (note that hemp oil looses its nutritional value when cooked)
Again you could consider finding a vegan omega-3 supplement suitable for babies such as Violife Plant-Based Omega-3, but it’s definitely an investment.
There are other nutrients such as iodine that are harder to come by on a plant-based diet, but breastfed babies will get most of these from breastmilk. Likewise formula contains a carefully considered blend of vitamins and minerals to meet your baby’s nutritional needs.
However, I have put together a Vegan Baby and Toddler Nutrient Guide below which lists all plant-based sources of all the vitamins and minerals you’ll need to think about, both during your journey and beyond. It’s completely free, just sign up below and download it now!
How do I start baby-led weaning?
You can start the baby-led weaning journey very casually and simply if you like, by just sitting your baby on your lap and letting them play with your own food. If you choose this route, it’s very important that you stop cooking with salt and become very aware of the salt content of your meals.
Babies up to 12 months of age can only have an absolute maximum of 1mg salt a day (0.4g sodium), otherwise you risk major health problems such as kidney damage and high blood pressure . Given that both breastmilk and formula contain salt, there’s basically no room for any extra in solid food so make sure you are cooking from scratch and not adding salt. I still don’t cook with salt two years on from BLW and I barely notice anymore.
If, like me, you prefer to start with a more specific plan in mind, you can go down the route of getting baby their own high-chair, plate, mat, bibs etc and sit them up to eat with you. Whichever method you go for though, just start including baby in your own meal times rather than giving them their own separate schedule.
What foods do you start with?
As I’ve mentioned, it’s a very good idea to start baby led weaning by introducing one new food at a time so that you can easily identify any allergens.
Also important is that you start with savoury foods first, introducing all the major vegetables first before you go anywhere near fruit. This is for two reasons:
1) you don’t want your baby’s first foods to be sweet as they may then have trouble accepting savoury foods afterwards and,
2) although the sugars in fruit are entirely natural and don’t represent the potential health troubles associated with refined sugars, they do still contain sugar and can therefore cause dental issues in your baby’s fresh new teeth. Even if they are as yet toothless (as Ursula was until 12 months+) sugars in the gums can be harmful if not properly addressed with careful brushing. I’d say avoid fruits at first and then only offer one small portion a day.
Begin with steaming or lightly roasting vegetables cut into nice long strips that baby can easily grab, such as carrot sticks, broccoli florets, peppers, courgettes and aubergines. As you move on, you can start offering multiple vegetables at once, as well as proteins and carbohydrates including tofu, pasta, beans and legumes. Once you’ve thoroughly covered savoury food groups, then you can start to introduce fruit, again one new food at a time.
At this stage, the process is purely about baby learning to pick up food and eat it – it is not, I repeat, NOT about nutrition. The baby-led weaning philosophy says, “Food before one is just for fun”. Don’t worry about trying to get nutrients into your baby at this point as their main source of nutrients will still be breastmilk and/or formula for some months to come.
Always time your sessions of offering food to your baby when they are both well-rested and full from a breastmilk/formula feed – again, you are not trying to use food to give nutrition or fill them up at this stage and your baby will learn and enjoy the process much more.
Are there any foods I shouldn’t give my baby?
There is a full list of foods to avoid giving your baby on the NHS website, but the vegan and vegetarian-relevant headlines are:
- Whole nuts
- All sugar including maple syrup, agave syrup and coconut sugar
- Salt and salty foods such as crisps, takeaways, ready meals and processed meat substitutes
- Saturated fat
- Mould-ripened, soft or unpasteurised cheeses such as blue cheese and camembert
- Raw or lightly-cooked eggs
- Rice milk
- Chocolate, cocoa or cacao
My vegan baby-led weaning nutrient guide below contains a handy printable list of the vegan foods you need to avoid giving your baby.
How do I stop my baby from choking?
Full on choking is no more likely with baby led weaning than it is with puréed weaning, but you should always cut any round foods such as cherry tomatoes, grapes and olives in half and lengthways in order to reduce the slightly higher risk of choking on these baby-esophagus-sized foods.
Continue to do this well into later childhood – in a Facebook group discussion on this topic recently, I heard from a mother whose 9 year old had choked on a whole cherry tomato, so you’ll need to keep up this habit for many years to come!
What drinks should I give my baby while baby-led weaning?
Only give your baby water, breastmilk or formula while weaning, offering a small amount during each meal time. I highly recommend starting them out with an open cup from the beginning, either a small shot glass or a Doidy cup as below, which helps little ones learn how to control water flow and sipping:
I made the mistake of starting Ursula out on various sippy or 360º cups and really wish I’d just offered an open cup right from the start. She’s 2.5 now and is still on closed beakers. I now have another weaning journey to do while I teach her how to drink from an open cup.
Once they are past 12 months old and getting the majority of their nutrition from solid food, you can ditch any formula and offer a low sodium plant-based milk. I settled on unsweetened oat milk with Ursula due to its’ low sodium and sugar content, plus its’ creamier taste. Almond is another good option but learn from my mistakes and stay away from the Alpro soy kids milk – it’s packed full of sugar. I started out with this and boy did I suddenly notice come bedtime!!
Again, note that you should never give rice milk to children under 5 years old due to its arsenic content.
Can my baby really get all their nutrients from a plant based diet?
Absolutely! Babies are just as able to gain all their nutrients from a plant based diet as you are. BUT (and it is a big and important but) you really do need to be extremely conscientious and thoughtful about nutrition in order to achieve this. With veganism in particular (but plant based and vegetarian diets too) it’s very easy to have either a poor diet or a healthful one, just as omnivores can have a poor or healthful diet.
With a growing child, you bear a huge responsibility in ensuring that, as the person in charge of what food they are offered, you make yourself knowledgable about the basics of nutrition. You can download my vegan baby led weaning nutrient guide below:
I have also curated a few essential resources for you that will help you if you are feeling uncertain of how to offer a fully nutritious vegan or plant based diet to your baby, including some free PDF downloads:
- A Nutrition Guide For Vegans Under Five Years Old — The Vegan Society
- Raising Vegan Children — Viva!
- Vegetarian & Vegan Mother & Baby Guide — Viva!
- Eating Well: Vegan Infants & Under-5s — First Steps Nutrition Trust
I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to the basics of vegan and vegetarian baby led weaning. Good luck with you baby’s weaning journey and enjoy the ride!