Eating should be pleasurable for everyone - adults and babies alike. Playing an active part in mealtimes and being in control of what to eat, how much to eat, and how fast to eat it make eating more enjoyable; the opposite can make mealtimes miserable. With baby-led weaning, babies look forward to eating; they enjoy learning about different foods and doing things for themselves. Early experiences of happy, stress-free mealtimes are more likely to give a child a healthy attitude toward food for life.
Babies are programmed to experiment and explore; it's how they learn. They use their hands and their mouths to find out about all sorts of objects, including food. With baby-led weaning, a baby can explore food at her own pace and follow her instincts to eat when she's ready - just like any baby animal.
Learning about food
Babies who are allowed to feed themselves learn about the look, smell, taste, and texture of different foods, and how different flavors work together; with spoon-feeding, all the tastes are pureed into one. With baby-led weaning, babies can discover the different tastes in, say, a chicken and vegetable casserole, and begin to learn how to recognize foods they like. And they can simply leave anything they don't like, rather than having to refuse the whole casserole to avoid it. This makes planning easier and means babies don't miss out on the foods they enjoy. It also means that the whole family can share a meal, even if not everyone likes all the flavors.
Learning about their world
Babies never just play; they are always learning. Pretty much everything babies can learn from the best (and most expensive) educational toys can be learned by handling food. For instance, they figure out how to hold something soft without squashing it or something slippery without dropping it - and about concepts such as less and more, size, shape, weight and texture, too. Because all their senses (sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste) are involved, they discover how to relate all these things to each other for a better understanding of the world around them.
Feeding themselves allows babies to practice important aspects of their development at every mealtime. Using their fingers to get food to their mouths means they can practice hand-eye coordination; gripping foods of different sizes and textures several times a day improves their dexterity. This may help with writing and drawing skills later. And chewing food (rather than just swallowing purees) develops the facial muscles that will be needed as they learn to talk.
Allowing babies to do things for themselves not only enables them to learn, but also gives them confidence in their own abilities and judgment. When a baby picks something up and gets it to her mouth she receives an almost instant reward in the form of an interesting taste or texture. This teaches her that she is capable of making good things happen, which in turn helps to build her confidence and self-esteem. As her experience of food grows, and she discovers what's edible and what isn't and what to expect from each type of food, she learns to trust her own judgment.
When babies are allowed to use their instincts to decide what to eat and what to leave, they rarely show any suspicion of food - as is sometimes seen in other babies and toddlers. Allowing them to reject a food they feel they don't need, or that may seem unsafe (over/underripe, rancid or poisonous), means babies are more willing to try new foods because they know they'll be allowed to decide whether or not to eat them.
Being part of family mealtimes
With baby-led weaning, babies are included in family mealtimes from the start, eating the same food and joining in the social time. This is fun for the baby and allows her to copy mealtime behavior, so that she will naturally move on to using utensils, and adopt the table manners expected in her family. Babies can begin to learn about how different foods are eaten, how to share, how to wait their turn, and how to make conversation. Sharing mealtimes has a positive impact on family relationships, social skills, language development, and healthy eating.
Eating habits developed during childhood can last a lifetime. It seems likely that babies who are allowed to choose what to eat from a range of nutritious foods, at their own pace, and to decide when they've had enough, continue to eat according to their appetite and are less likely to overeat when they are older. This may be an important part of preventing obesity.
With baby-led weaning, because milk feedings are reduced very gradually, babies who are breastfed are more likely to continue getting a good intake of breast milk for longer. Breastfeeding provides not only a perfect balance of nutrients but also protection, for both children and their mothers, against many serious illnesses.
No need for games or tricks
Many parents who spoon-feed their baby find that she isn't keen to eat, and they have to come up with ways of persuading her to accept different foods. Because baby-led weaning respects babies' decisions about what to eat (or not to eat) and when to stop eating, the need to persuade just doesn't arise. This means there is no call for elaborate games involving train and airplane noises to try to fool a baby into accepting food she doesn't want. And there is no need to trick toddlers into eating healthily by making food into special shapes (such as smiley faces) or "hiding" vegetables in other dishes.
Letting the baby share what's being cooked for the rest of the family is cheaper than buying and preparing separate meals. And it's much less expensive than ready-made baby foods!
Are There Any Disadvantages?
Okay, yes, it is a bit messy! But all babies need to learn to feed themselves at some point, and that will involve some mess. It's just that, with baby-led weaning, the mess comes earlier than it would otherwise. The good news is that the messy period, for a lot of babies, is quite short; because the baby has the chance to practice feeding herself so often, she quickly gets good at it. There are lots of ways to prepare for the mess and, anyway, spoon-feeding can be pretty messy, too!
Other people's worries
Dealing with the early fears and doubts of relatives and friends isn't really a disadvantage, but it can be a problem with baby-led weaning. Because it hasn't been talked about much in the past, many people don't know about this method of introducing solids, or understand how it works. This means they may be skeptical or worry about it - until, that is, they see it in action!