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Baby-Led Weaning: The Facts Behind the Fad

Baby-led weaning is becoming increasingly popular among parents. Fewer and fewer parents are buying pureed baby food during these formative months. But is this fad scientifically sound or will parents have to revert back to the older methods? Here's what Wendi Carlton, MD, a physician at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Arizona, had to say about how this type of weaning works and its health benefits.

Letting Your Child Be in Control

Although "baby-led weaning" is the popular term, "baby-led feeding" is actually more accurate, Dr. Carlton explained. It's not about taking babies off formula or stopping breastfeeding; it's about slowly introducing them to solid foods. "The old tradition is that you get these tiny baby spoons and feed the baby pureed foods," she said. "You're determining what the baby eats, and you're the one in control -- they just open their mouths like little birds."

Baby-led weaning is the concept of putting babies in control of what they eat. It involves parents putting age-appropriate foods on their child's plate and allowing them to choose what and how much they eat. Doctors typically recommend starting the weaning process at six months because at this age, babies tend to have good head control and can sit upright without leaning back. Dr. Carlton said this is when they're ready to start feeding themselves. However, you can't just put the food on a plate and walk away. This weaning style requires constant parental interaction, so feed your baby at the table and keep an eye on him or her the whole time.

Parents traditionally fed pureed food to their babies because they thought it cut down on the risk of choking. But ultimately, this didn't end up being the case. Dr. Carlton noted that studies found that baby-led weaning resulted in more gagging at first, but only until babies got used to the process. "By about eight months of age, they don't gag anymore, and the control group was gagging more," Dr. Carlton said. "That's because the babies in the weaning group learned, 'If I shove this in the back of my throat, I'm going to gag.'"

The Health and Wellness Benefits

Some experts believe that baby-led weaning can actually decrease obesity. When you spoon-feed your babies, you're teaching them to eat whatever is in front of them, Dr. Carlton explained. This trains babies to ignore when they're full, which may lead to obesity. When babies are in charge of their food, they can stop eating once they're no longer hungry.

This technique can also potentially decrease the chance of your baby developing food allergies by exposing them to more foods. And it helps them avoid texture aversions that some children develop. "You give them a chance to have food in front of them that they can touch, feel, smell, and know the texture in their mouths," Dr. Carlton said. "Some kids have texture aversions growing up and this may be because you're not letting them experience textures on their own early enough."

It's also great for socialization. "It starts the good habit of the family taking time out of their busy day to eat together," she said. "You're not just feeding soft food on the go. It forces the family to sit down with the infant to make sure they're safe, sitting upright, and feeding themselves safely."

Precautions You Should Take

When following this technique, babies who choke are often either given the wrong type of food or not watched closely enough. Following all the criteria that's set out by your pediatrician is vital. "The foods have to be a certain size -- as big as their fist -- so they can hold onto it," Dr. Carlton said. "Parents who notice choking may have given their babies something like small candies, nuts, or raisins." She suggests avoiding small foods that are easily inhaled or choked on, so stick with foods that are dissolvable and don't crumble.

To ensure that you're focused on your baby, never feed them while you're distracted or doing something else that requires your attention, such as driving. Dr. Carlton suggests feeding during family meals for the best interaction opportunities. This way, you can monitor when your baby decides he or she is done eating.

Most importantly, you should talk to your pediatrician before you begin baby-led weaning. They can provide a list of foods you shouldn't use, and can help make sure you're doing it right. "There are no dumb questions -- babies don't come with a manual, and the information on the Internet can be confusing," she said. "That's why your pediatrician is so important."

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