Baby knows best

Finger-lickin' good ... Nicole Bridges allows her son, Quinn, to decide how soon he'll switch to solids.
Finger-lickin' good ... Nicole Bridges allows her son, Quinn, to decide how soon he'll switch to solids. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Letting kids decide what to eat and when may be better than forced weaning.

When Nicole Bridges first declared she would try baby-led weaning with her son, Quinn, now 10 months, not everyone in the family was convinced.

''My husband was concerned he was going to choke,'' says Bridges, a mother of three.

Baby-led weaning introduces babies to solid food from the age of six months via soft finger foods rather than mashes and purees.

Bridges did not have fond memories of introducing her two daughters, now 12 and seven, to solid foods via spoon-feeding.

''My first daughter wasn't that keen,'' Bridges says. ''There was a lot of fiddling and wasted purees and rice cereal. With my second, she didn't want a bar of it and it wasn't until she was 12 months old that she started eating solid foods.''

Bridges says if she had realised she could simply offer the children food off her plate, she would have tried it.

''All the marketing for baby foods would have us believe that they can't [eat such food] but if they are developmentally ready, they don't need purees at all.''

Quinn's first ''solid'' meal came a week after he turned six months - a piece of pasta he snatched from the family dinner.

''Then we tried him on some baked carrot. We weren't sure he had swallowed it until the next day when it appeared in his nappy.''

Since then, Bridges has given her son whatever soft foods she is preparing for the rest of the family.

''Peas are great, so is grated cheese and any baked vegetables,'' she says. ''He will have a go at just about everything.''

Louise Duursma from the Australian Breastfeeding Association says rather than weaning to pureed meals, baby-led weaning allows the infant to eat only what they want, helping avoid mealtime battles.

''You get these babies that refuse food and often it is not the food they are refusing but the way they are being fed,'' she says.

The practice has been growing in popularity thanks to the book Baby Led Weaning, by British childhood educator Gill Rapley, who argues that self-feeding is an independent process that avoids combative meal times, encourages dexterity and exposes the baby early on to a range of colours, shapes, textures and flavours.

Choking, Duursma says, is not a danger as long as the baby sits upright, has control of what is being eaten and isn't given inappropriate foods such as nuts or small pieces of hard fruit and vegetables.

''By six months, they can sit up and have lost the tongue thrust reflex,'' she says. ''Babies can also chew without teeth. None of my children had teeth before 12 months and they could eat a piece of steak.''

While baby-led weaning is seen as a natural extension of breastfeeding, it is also feasible for formula or bottle-fed babies.

One downside, Bridges says, is the mess. ''I'll often give him his main meal at dinner so I can just throw him in the bath,'' she says. ''And I am not strict about only letting him feed himself. If we are in a rush in the morning, I will spoon-feed him yoghurt because he is dressed and I am dressed and I don't want it going everywhere.''

The biggest advantage of baby-led weaning is that it fits in with the rest of the family.

''First-time mothers really complicate it … This is much easier than preparing separate meals,'' Bridges says.

Fact file

❏ Baby-led weaning introduces babies to solid food from the age of six months via soft finger foods rather than purees.

❏ Benefits include avoiding fights at meal times, encouraging dexterity and reducing work in the kitchen.

❏ Families with a history of allergies should seek medical advice beforehand.