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!

____________________________

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.

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

  1. Stacy @ Sweet Sky

    So interesting to read about the two approaches. With Orlando (now 8) we did simple purees and some whole foods (I didn’t know about baby-led weaning). I was very careful to let him set the pace, either by letting him do it himself or following his cues.

    With Mica (now 5) we did baby-led weaning… I just began offering whole foods to him at some point (I can’t even remember when! oh, the poor second born child). He loved to mouth things and taste things and was very adept at eating the parts he wanted (for example, he would spit out the pear skin, or shell the peas himself). Before baby-led weaning, I don’t think I fully understand introducing solids as a way to get familiar with foods, smells, textures rather than as a way to “fill up.” We used to call what Mica was doing “getting the essence” of things.

    I wrote about our baby-led weaning here:

    http://sweetsky.net/2007/08/mouthful/

    http://sweetsky.net/2007/11/give-me-that-silverware-woman/

    Thanks, Melissa — what a thorough and helpful article!

  2. Charise@I Thought I Knew Mama  

    What a cool perspective! We loved BLW and I love how you paralleled Montessori with it. I wish we could actually afford the Montessori schools around here…

  3. Brig

    We’re doing BLW with our now 16 month old and have and are still loving it (so does the dog!) it was amazing watching her progress in the beginning, now she clearly lets us know what she does and doesn’t want and still makes a mess but it’s so great to see her learning so much, her hand-eye co-ordination is impressive and meal times bring us together as a family. I hate the idea of ‘filling babies up’ with ‘just one more spoonfull’, it’s much less fuss and things she’s not too keen on one day she tries later, after ‘inspection’, she has her say in what she eats which is important- we all have a varying appetite. Living in France we get lots of funny looks and people are horrified with the mess she makes and the fact that she is allowed to use her hands, it’s so funny watching other parents compelled to wipe her hands & face constantly! But she’s always the last child to leave the table, she enjoys meal times and that is the best we could hope for!

    • Melissa  

      I agree with you on the “one more spoonful” thing – it’s too much fuss, and not often helpful! Enjoying mealtimes is one of my favorite by products of BLW. Our daughter is 23 months now, and the adults have usually long since finished eating when she’s ready to leave the table. It’s great to see them enjoying the process of eating healthy foods!

  4. Amy  

    This feels like such an “organic” or “natural” approach and it’s definitely what we’ve morphed into through the years and increasing number of children. Kids just naturally grow to eat foods that work for them when allowed. Thanks, Melissa. :)

  5. Jen

    That sounds like what I’ve done with my DD. From my WAP/real foods perspective, I really wanted make sure my daughter set the pace for food, as I trust that her instincts will help her eat what she needs. I found that she did like food more when I pureed it for her (because of texture issues, related to gut problems) so I have made purees, but she’s always fed herself. I didn’t realize Montessori had any direction on feeding – so it is funny to me that we’ve been encouraging a lot of independence and using real bowls and utensils and napkins from early on.

    • Melissa  

      I really believe that, like AP/NP much of what is “Montessori” is really just instinctual when we let societal pressures fall away. I’m in awe of parents who find a similar way on their own – it always takes me a lot of (unnecessary) thinking and philosophizing.

  6. Janine  

    You may know that we practiced a lot of BLW, which I wrote about at babyledweaningblog.com for several months. We weren’t super strict with it in that I would sometimes spoon-feed Sebastian if we were sharing a bowl of yogurt or oatmeal. I mean, my husband and I feed each other bites of food sometimes and I find it intimate and fine for babies too once in awhile. A lot of BLW followers seem to think that there is no in-between but sometimes it just isn’t practical to let a baby eat their own yogurt! (Nowadays Sebastian does well with Greek yogurt and likes to use the spoon himself, which I honor as much as possible.)

    I thought I was the only one who was opposed to high chairs for awhile! I don’t love the straps either. We had a bebePOD and we have an IKEA high chair, and we never used the straps on either one. I am always close by and I felt it was safer to have him unstrapped. (The high chair actually had a recall due to babies tipping it over while strapped in. Unstrapped, Sebastian sometimes stands up in the chair when he is finished and we grab him immediately. No big deal.) For a long time we let him eat with us at the coffee table. Our previous apartment had no real dining area – It was all carpeted – and it worked pretty well. Now that he is more mobile we insist on the high chair for messier foods that we don’t want him carrying around, but for snacks he is definitely allowed to come and go from the table. Sebastian can also sign and ask to get down from his chair at any time and is never forced to continue sitting, so I feel that his independence is respected. (I’m curious how you feel about older children and families that insist kids ask to be excused before leaving the table… How does Montessori mesh with the idea of ‘good manners’? I personally am not a fan of forced niceties, which seems to be a more and more popular stance among some mom bloggers.)

    • Melissa K.

      I’m on the same page when it comes to sharing from a spoon here and there. I don’t see an issue with it myself, and I don’t think it’s the same as singing and doing airplane movements to get a kid to take one more bite ;)

      Love hearing about your experience with using the coffee table, highchairs, and so on.

      Montessori believed that as children get older and become more aware, if that is what’s modeled for them, they actually *want* to behave in a way that would be considered polite, and they’re grateful when we show them how. She never spoke of forcing certain behaviors, and I don’t believe she would have been the parent who walked around asking her child, “Now what do we say?” She really believed in modeling, and showing children how to do things for themselves. One example she gives in her writing is of showing children how to blow their noses quietly and discreetly. She describes how grateful the children seemed after she showed them, using modeling, how to do it, and how they took great delight in being able to use the skill themselves.

      My take is that if we have expectations, we should show children what we expect by doing it ourselves. As they grow and develop, they will internalize this and behave just fine on their own. Of course there’s no harm in gentle reminders, but I don’t like forced niceties for myself either.

  7. katie  

    i’ve been reading a lot about the Montessori methods and they seem really great. my husband and i are looking forward to implementing them with our kids

  8. Sarah Jane  

    Thanks for comparing the two!! With our daughter, we too combined the two. I bought fresh fruits and vegetables and would puree them myself, and keep them separate from each other, but if my daughter was reaching for something on my husband’s plate or my plate, we’d let her try a bite.

  9. Jan Messali  

    Cute photo of the spinach face! LOL :) I was not familiar with the Montessori approach of skipping pureed foods. Thanks for the information and links.

  10. Mama @ BabyBirdsFarm  

    This is great! I’ve been using the Montessori approach* and didn’t know it! I also pick and choose what approaches work for us and although I was initially drawn to the philosophy of BLW, found it too restrictive and counter-intuitive.

    *I myself attended Montessori school from age 2.5 to 1st grade, but I’m not familiar with approaches for babies. Thanks for sharing!

  11. Mama @ BabyBirdsFarm  

    Thanks! (And thanks for the sweet comment on the post.) I didn’t have a name for it, but I think I also do the buffet-approach.

  12. Brytny Mae  

    I love this.. I’m looking to start incorporating Montessori into my 10m old DD life and have been looking for a way to mesh BLW and their style.. we have been BLW since 6m. the biggest thing I was trying to figure out was the weaning table vs family meals.. and your approach is perfect

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