Weaning explained by Dr. Pixie McKenna

Dr. Pixie McKenna gives her top tips on how to support your little one when they make the big transition to self-feeding with baby weaning explained.

While you may have earmarked a date for the big departure to solids, have you decided how you are actually going to do it? In addition to the traditional, spoon-fed method, baby-led weaning is also an option. Baby-led weaning is not a new concept, in fact it’s been around for about a decade.

Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages and I’ve outlined these below.

Traditional weaning

This method essentially introduces different types of puréed food to your baby using a soft spoon. Many parents start by introducing baby rice and move onto soft fruit and vegetable purees within the first few weeks (stage one weaning).

As your baby becomes comfortable with swallowing the purees, a coarser texture can be introduced, followed by small lumps and finger foods at seven to nine months (stage two weaning).

The speed at which this progresses varies from baby to baby. There are some disadvantages with traditional weaning, such as that preparing purées can be time-consuming and may mean that your baby is eating a different meal from the rest of the family. She is also not learning about individual foods, tastes and textures when they are blended together.

Parents often overfeed their children if they are in charge of the spoon. I’ve done it myself. Some parents may also spend too much time in the purée zone and delay progression to lumps, which can have a negative impact on oral development and speech further down the line, as well as lead to fussier eaters.

Baby-led weaning

Baby-led weaning follows a commonsense concept, where baby takes the lead to decide when, what and how much to eat. You obviously help by prepping the food and providing the venue and a routine. Your baby can touch, taste, explore and eat foods at her own pace.

While there is a technical risk of under eating, most texts will tell you that a baby will never starve when there’s food around. It’s a primitive instinct to fill up! However, baby-led weaning is not for you if you are a bit of a control freak. While ultimately you have little control when it comes to traditional weaning, allowing your baby to take control can prove quite stressful to the uninitiated. In addition, you can’t ensure your child is getting her iron quota if she’s allowed to graze rather than be spoon fed.


Allowing your little one to take the lead helps her develop skills, gain independence and improve hand-eye co-ordination. Start by offering her soft finger foods at family meal times, so she can immediately socialise and mimic those around the table. Let her do her own spooning and get stuck in.

As she is self-feeding, she learns her hunger and satiety cues early on. Being in control now may mean she is less likely to be a picky eater in the future as she accepts a wide range of food.

The flip side of this is you have no idea how much baby is actually eating. Many parents also have concerns about choking in self-feeders. Interestingly, a baby’s gag reflex is further forward in the mouth than an adult’s. She is hard-wired to shoot something back out rather than suck it in. At six months, providing you offer appropriate foods, the choking risk should not be any greater with this method than if you spoon feed her.

The best method

Which method you decide to use is entirely up to you. Neither is incorrect. If you want, you can choose to take the best of both methods and wean your own way.

Weaning should never be stressful for you or your baby. The best method is the one that works for you, not against you. Don’t force yourself to do something that doesn’t seem to fit with you – both approaches are guidelines, not law.

The fundamental principal of weaning for me is knowing what you shouldn’t do rather than dictating what you should. Just like baby finds her way through the purées, you too feel your way through weaning. The end goal is the same, the journey differs slightly for everyone.

Tips for stage three

Stage three foods are given at around nine to twelve months. Your baby is ready for food with a consistency of mince or chopped meat. Once again you are stepping up a gear in terms of texture, plus by now he has a few teeth to help tackle the food. The good news is that by the time he comes to the end of this phase he will be ready to enjoy full-on family food, albeit in smaller portions!


The aim at stage three is to provide variety and nutrition while expanding the textures and flavours offered. Food at this stage can have lumps and chunks. Baby can now start to eat mince and chopped meats like lamb or beef. Finger food can be upgraded from soft to hard, e.g. toast. By this stage she has also mastered the pincer grasp so is able to pick up smaller morsels rather than rake them up.

Take care when cutting up finger food to ensure it is cube shaped or baton shaped and avoid cutting things into coin shapes (e.g. slices of sausage) as this has a greater choking risk. You should be aiming to have baby eating three meals and two snacks a day by the end of this phase. This sounds like a lot but she will be moving around a great deal more than previously so she needs more calories. She will also be curious and keen to experience new things.

When choosing foods, consider the iron content. This doesn’t have to just be red meat – dried fruit, eggs, cereal and green veg are also great resources. Remember, to access iron for absorption you need vitamin C. Think of iron as the cash card and vitamin C as the pin!

Fruit and veg are great vitamin C resources – mango, melon, tomato, even the humble potato.

More like this:

Pureed sweet potato
Pear and baby rice
Beef and potato puree 

Ask Tracey

Midwife Tracey Donegan answers your questions about pregnancy and birth

Q When should I have my first pregnancy scan? And how many scans should I get throughout my pregnancy?

Your first scan is known as your dating scan and is routine in all hospitals. Most mums will have this scan at their booking visit, which can be anywhere between 12-18 weeks. The earlier the scan the more accurate it will be. If you have experienced recurrent miscarriages some hospitals will scan you earlier. Contact your antenatal clinic for more information. In Ireland, most women will have two scans in a healthy pregnancy – a dating scan and an anomaly scan at around 20 weeks. However, some units provide a dating scan only. Private scans are also available in most cities and many parents use these services for additional reassurance and to find out the sex of their baby.


Ask Sarah

Q I’ve heard a lot about the Paleo diet and as I am very interested in reducing the amount of processed foods and grain based meals my family eats, we are considering following this diet. From what I read it seems to be a back-to-basics type of eating. Is a Paleo diet safe for children? My kids are aged seven and nine.

A The Paleo diet is one of the most fashionable diets around at the moment. It is also known as the ‘caveman diet’ and is based on cutting out processed foods, starchy foods like bread and potatoes and eating more meat, vegetables and fruit.
As fad diets go, it is not the worst but there are some good and bad sides to it. Reducing the amount of processed foods we eat is always a good idea and by doing that you will usually reduce the amount of fat, salt and sugar you eat, which is a good thing! The problem with the Paleo diet is that it also cuts out dairy (on the basis that cavemen didn’t drink milk) and this means that the diet is very low in calcium. For this reason it is really not suitable for children who do need a lot of calcium for growing bones. How did cavemen manage without dairy? They ate a lot more food than we do (up to 10,000 calories per day compared to the 2,000 most of us eat). By eating that amount of food they were able to pick up just enough calcium from green vegetables and seeds. To put it in perspective, you would need to eat 16 servings of broccoli a day to get all the calcium you need. This is easier to do if you eat 10,000 calories per day rather than 2,000.
The other problem with the paleo diet is that it is not entirely based in science. Many of the Paleo diets out there say you should not eat wheat, even though we know that cavemen did in fact eat wheat and other grains. These diets also don’t recommend that you eat blubber and the big lumps of fat that were also a large part of the caveman diet!
A final problem is that many Paleo diets encourage people to cut out beans and lentils and to get their protein from meat and fish instead. Many studies over the last few years are clear that eating too much animal protein is linked with more cancer and heart disease. Eating some vegetarian meals based on beans and lentils is a great way to get your protein without always going for meat.
Is this a diet we should follow? I think there is a lot we can learn from the Paleo diets. We could all do with eating less salt, sugar and processed foods and adding in more nuts and seeds as well as more vegetables. However, I think following a strict Paleo diet could lead to low levels of calcium and vitamin D and so it is not suitable for children or teens and adults would need to think about a calcium supplement.