Montessori Meets Baby-Led Weaning: A Natural Approach to Introducing Solids

Like many other natural parents, I find that “buffet-style parenting” works wonderfully for me. I take what suits my child and family and fits in with our priorities, and I leave the rest. My child is an individual, after all, and she requires an individualized approach. Having been a Montessori teacher prior to motherhood, I draw a lot from Montessori philosophy, but I also have to look at what’s practical for our family and what makes sense to my husband and me.

The Montessori method for introducing solids has always appealed to me on some level, but the practice of baby-led weaning, popular among natural parents, also caught my eye. I went back and forth a good deal as I tried to work out the best approach for us, but in the end, I found out that the two can actually work together in perfect harmony.

If you’re unfamiliar with Montessori philosophy, just imagine a way of thinking that leads to complete respect for the child and childhood, fosters independence, and teaches a methodical, even downright scientific way of preparing the child’s environment to facilitate development and learning. I may be somewhat partial, but that’s the best summary I can give. Baby-led weaning, for the unfamiliar, refers to a method of introducing solids in infancy wherein parents skip purees and measured portions, offering their infants whole foods to explore instead. If you’d like to dig a bit deeper than my vague descriptions, have a look at this great explanation at Montessori Australia from Louise Livingston, or this succinct yet thorough run-down of baby-led weaning from baby-led.com.

The biggest similarity that I saw between baby-led weaning and Montessori was the way they prioritize independence. Both ways of thinking honor the child’s innate ability to seek out the things that they need (provided they’re relatively close at hand), when they need them, and eliminate the need for force or coercion. Another parallel is the way both BLW and Montessori allow the child to continue a process at their own pace – truly feeding with love and respect. It was these parallels that first drew me to Baby-Led Weaning, and based on them, I made modifications to the Montessori approach for introducing solids to arrive at a method that worked well for our family.

A happy, sleepy nursling, days before beginning baby-led weaning. She's still going strong at 22 months old!

Age for Beginning Weaning

Please note: references to weaning in this article refer to slowly starting the process of introducing solids, which will eventually, perhaps years later, replace breast milk in the child’s diet. My mish-mash approach comes from a place of valuing human milk’s role in the child’s diet for at least the first two years of life, and thereafter for as long as both mother and child wish. By weaning I do not mean attempting to cease breastfeeding.

Montessorians have generally pointed to the time between four and six months of age as the “sensitive period,” or optimal time for beginning the introduction of solids. It’s important to note that Montessori herself was a lover of science. Knowing this, I firmly believe that if she were alive today, she would encourage parents to wait to introduce solids until their children were at least six months old, in keeping with current medical recommendations. Those who practice baby-led weaning generally wait to introduce solids until around six months of age or later – whenever their child is showing signs of readiness.

Examining the information available and looking at my own child’s signs of readiness, I chose to start offering solids little by little at about seven months of age. We started with fruits and vegetables and only months later added fermented grains. Now, at almost two, my daughter literally eats just about everything we eat.

How Food is Prepared

Traditionally, Montessorians have followed the cultural norm of offering purees first, but have been ahead of the curve in their recommendation to offer food in its purest form – that is just carrots, or just apples rather than some mysterious combination of the two. Baby-Led Weaning eschews purees in favor of food in its whole, natural state. Again, Montessori believed in the value of scientific understanding, and as such I believe may have made different recommendations about purees if she were alive today and privy to the same information that Baby-Led Weaning advocates base their decisions on.

Families practicing Baby-Led Weaning offer babies the same foods that the rest of the family is eating, preferably prior to the addition of salt or sugar. This allows babies to explore tastes and texture while physically handling a food and taking it in with all of their senses. This idea feels very “Montessori” to me, since it facilitates the important connection between what a baby is seeing and touching and what they’re eating, while honoring the child’s desire to explore and their ability to self feed.

Self-feeding allows babies to regulate their own food intake. The process is “baby-led” in the sense that the infant controls the ratio of solid food to milk in their diet, increasing their solid food intake only as they are ready. I believe this to be the most logical way of doing things, so I opted to offer whole foods instead of preparing purees.

How Food is Served

Seating

In the Montessori approach, infants are lap fed (given purees while seated on the caregiver’s lap) before they can sit up at a table, and once they are able to sit alone they’re fed at a “weaning table.” The weaning table is a special infant-sized table from which the mobile infant can get up and down on their own. Because Montessori philosophy emphasizes the value of independence, babies cared for using a decidedly Montessori approach are not generally placed into apparatus that restricts their movement, hence the use of a weaning table over a more traditional high chair. This allows freedom of movement for the child, and the ability to come to and leave the table at will.

Most, though not all, families who practice baby-led weaning serve food to their infant while he or she is seated in a high chair. There is no reason why this has to be the case, but baby-led weaning does focus on incorporating the infant into family mealtimes and a high chair is a logical way to do this.

I certainly value independence and freedom of movement, and I avoided most all baby equipment with straps and buckles (except for the car seat, of course), but I decided that the high chair actually was for us. Montessori also stresses the importance of including the child in family and social life, and I personally believe that mealtimes are an important part of family life, so I wanted my daughter to be as involved in them as possible. We use a child-sized table at snacks and other times when it’s just me and my daughter, but the use of a high chair at dinner each night allows our whole family to eat together, and gives our daughter the chance to see how her daddy and I eat.

Baby-led weaning with spinach curry, and a little help from the spoon.

Equipment

Proponents of baby-led weaning stress a no-fuss approach and generally serve food to infants by placing it directly on the table or the high chair tray in front of the child. Plates, bowls, and silverware merely get in the way in the very early days, when the child wants to explore food with all of their senses, including the sense of touch.

Montessorians recommend using a separate clear glass dish for each food served to an infant. This allows the child to easily see what each food looks like and watch it as it goes from bowl, to spoon, to their mouth. Since purees are typically used, the child is spoon-fed at first. As he or she gets older and begins to feed themselves, a special place mat and a complete place setting is used, with the goal of helping the child to learn organization and table manners.

I appreciate the value of allowing babies the opportunity to enjoy a full sensory experience with their food, but at the same time I think it’s helpful to give children the tools from a very early age, to participate in social life. The more experience children have with that which is culturally considered “polite,” the more likely I feel they will be to choose to do these sorts of things on their own. If a child is used to using silverware and having a napkin in their lap from infancy, there will be little need down the line for adults to explain the idea of manners to them, or to interrupt mealtimes to give directions. With all of this in mind, I chose to serve food in a bowl or on a plate, and offer infant-sized utensils and a napkin even at my daughter’s very earliest meals. She still used her hands a lot, and enjoyed the feel of food between her fingers. I never interfered with these early experiences, and gradually my daughter learned on her own how to pick up and use the utensils that had always been there. Sometimes she still uses her hands, and that’s okay. What’s important to me is that she has all of the tools she needs, and I trust that she’ll use them more and more as time goes on.

Choosing the Best Approach for The Child

Early experiences with food can set the foundation for a lifetime of healthy eating, so finding an approach that works for your family and your child is well worth some thought and effort. The biggest concern for us was waiting for readiness, and then watching our daughter’s reactions to food and responding based on her needs. Not only did our modified version of baby-led weaning work beautifully, but it took so much pressure off us. There was no need to prepare entirely separate meals, to worry about how much or how little our daughter had eaten, or to manage our own appetites while spooning food into her mouth. It was a joy to watch her learn about food and develop her own preferences.

If you’re considering baby-led weaning, there are some great resources to help you make the decision that will work best for you and your child.

Resources

Baby-Led Weaning: Helping Your Baby to Love Good Food by Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett

Baby-Led Weaning – a simple leaflet covering the basics of getting started with BLW

Guidelines for Implementing a Baby-Led Approach to the Introduction of Solid Foods – a great document from Gill Rapley that covers some common concerns and dos and don’ts for those getting started with BLW

Babyledweaning.com – “Growing healthy babies with healthy appetites, “a resource rich website, complete with a BLW blog and a forum.

What was your approach to introducing solids? Have you tried, or are you considering Baby-Led Weaning? We would love to hear your thoughts and experiences!

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Melissa Kemendo, Author of Vibrant Wanderings

Melissa has perfected the art of working from home without being gainfully employed. She is mom to two vibrant, curious children, with whom she and her husband live and adventure in the Washington, DC area. When she’s not baking, pushing swings, and attempting yet again to summit laundry mountain, she’s working on the Montessori community program for which she acts as teacher, to her own daughter and a handful of other children. She can also often be found writing about something Montessori-related, or just motherhood in general, on her blog, Vibrant Wanderings.

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