Different feeding approaches when starting solids

By: Abby McLennan
Paediatric and maternal nutritionist at Mum Bub Nutrition 

Woohoo you’re at the milestone of your baby starting solids!. You’ve likely started to wonder how and what do I feed my baby.

I’ll explain the three different feeding approaches you can decide to try with your baby and quickly touch on what foods to start with. 

I'll be honest, there isn't one best way to feed a baby. However, there is one way that is right for you and your baby, and this will look different for every parent/child dynamic. There is no pressure to strictly follow one approach - you need to feel comfortable from the start to do what's right for the both of you to allow a positive feeding journey to develop..

There are three approaches to starting solids with your baby.

  • baby led weaning (BLW).
  • spoon feeding with purées.
  • Combination feeding - which is a combination of BLW and spoon feeding 

Working out the best method for the both of you depends on your feeding confidence and knowledge as the parent and your baby’s abilities and personal preference. Some parents are anxious about giving their baby whole pieces of food and prefer the spoon feeding method. Other parents are happy with finger foods and may notice their baby is also happy progressing with finger foods and continue on the BLW path. One main point that underpins all feeding is the ability to feed responsively.  

Responsive feeding is about responding to signs your baby may want to feed or eat and meeting your baby where they are in terms of skills and development. It's also about building trust with feeding for both your baby and you. Learning to recognise your baby's hunger and fullness cues are a part of responsive feeding and is paramount no matter which feeding approach you choose.

The baby led weaning (BLW) approach means foods are offered in their whole form and not puréed. Food can be offered as finger sized pieces of food from your plate e.g. broccoli, zucchini, meat koftas/patties, or pasta etc.

These are the points to keep in mind with BLW:

  • Babies develop hand-eye coordination well following BLW.
  • Gives babies early chewing practice especially if offering bones to chew.
  • Appropriate for babies from 6 months.
  • Progression can sometimes BLW can be a slower process compared to offering purées or a combo of purées and finger food.
  • The food is relatively easier to prepare because you don't need the extra step of puréeing the food.
  • Some babies may not have the necessary motor skills or motivation to feed themselves from 6 months.
  • Families who follow BLW more often have babies who eat more family foods earlier on.
  • Research has shown that eating foods in their whole form earlier on may be protective against fussy eating.
  • Babies may gag more compared to spoon fed babies when they first start solids. To counter this, you can offer “resistive foods” which are foods that your baby cannot bite but they help to desensitise the gag reflex .e.g bones, watermelon rind, corn cob with kernels removed.

The spoon feeding approach is where purées are offered on a spoon which you then either offer to your baby yourself or give them the loaded spoon to self feed. If you choose to spoon feed then it's especially important to practice identifying your baby's cues for fullness as you will be largely in control of their feeding. 

Some of the points to keep in mind with spoon feeding:

  • It is easy to get lots of variety in because you can blend a few different foods at once.
  • The baby can experience more flavours in one meal.
  • It's easier to offer iron rich foods by incorporating into purées.
  • Babies have an opportunity to develop oral motor skills through self-feeding with a spoon.
  • Purées are easy to blend and you can move through different textures quite quickly.
  • The parent can understand a deeper connection with their baby's hunger and fullness cues.
  • Parents may rely on purées for too long affecting their baby's ability to eat family meals.
  • Babies learn how to use utensils e.g. spoon and fork.
  • Parents may not increase the purée texture quickly enough which can delay their baby's texture progress.

The combination feeding approach is where you adopt the two common feeding styles together - BLW and spoon feeding. The idea of combining the two as a “best of both worlds” is a fantastic way to give your baby a great start to their solids journey.

If you do offer finger foods alongside spoon feeding, then offer the finger food at the start of the meal when your baby is most interested in eating. Regardless of how you start solids, be sure to transition to self-feeding with finger foods no later than 8/9 months.

After 8/9 months of age the transition to self-feeding becomes much harder and the reflexes that protect your baby from swallowing pieces of food that are too large are less easily triggered.

It may sound counterintuitive but it's far safer for your baby to learn how to chew and swallow when those protective reflexes are easily triggered and in high gear in the 6 to 8/9 months range.

Ultimately whichever approach you choose, is a two way street - what matters is not how you feed your baby in terms of BLW, spoon feeding or combo, but about developing an understanding with your baby to make mealtimes a safe and fun experience that builds trust and confidence for you both.

The Australian Infant Feeding Guidelines recommend that we need to offer iron and zinc rich foods as a first food. Foods which contain both of these nutrients in adequate amounts are foods such as liver, red meat, bone marrow, chicken, fish (allergen), pork, tofu (allergen), eggs (allergen), beans and lentils. Heme sources of iron are exclusively found in animal products and are more easily absorbed by the body than non-heme sources. Some iron rich foods are also part of the top 9 allergen foods. Just don’t serve these foods as a very first food (make sure you test them with your baby first by offering a really small amount before serving).

Start with an iron rich food and add a vegetable or fruit for variety and flavour.

Offering an iron rich food with a fruit or vegetable can look like this:

  • Spoon feeding -  broccoli and beef mince puree.
  • Baby led weaning - roasted/steamed broccoli floret alongside a beef mince kofta or pattie.. 
  • Combination - Broccoli and beef mince puree with a softly cooked broccoli floret or beef kofta/pattie.

Author:  Abby McLennan | @mum_bub_nutrition

Paediatric and maternal nutritionist at Mum Bub Nutrition