It’s a scene many know all too well: Mum or Dad is parachuting some sweet potato purée into Baby’s gaping mouth. Yet upon its descent—complete with jet noises and cockpit announcements—Baby throws a hand right into its flight trajectory, sending purée every which way en route to the kitchen floor.

If only these parents knew there’s a better way. Cue the scene:

The family sits down for dinner after a busy day. Mum and Dad are tired after work—but they do at least know that Baby’s about to eat a good meal without fuss. Why? Because they practice baby-led weaning. Baby sits in the high chair at the table with the rest of the family, a spread of finger foods before them, and transfers little pieces from tray to tongue—all by themselves.

How does baby-led weaning work?

Baby-led weaning was brought to a wider audience upon the publication of Baby-Led Weaning, a 2009 parenting self-help book by Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett. Subtitled Helping Your Baby Love Good Food, Rapley and Murkett advocate passionately for a more natural and family-friendly way of feeding your little one solids. You give your child what you are eating. No purée (and definitely no “Here comes the plane”)—and ideally nothing processed, straight-off-the-shelf, or out of a jar. That doesn’t mean serving them up lobster Thermidor as you tuck into a midweek banquet, but it does mean eating a grownup meal that incidentally consists of soft foods—soup, pasta, avocado. My daughter’s second ever solid meal was corn on the cob with mash. Serve a dish that just so happens to have the softness of purée—but a meal that you would eat yourself.

Baby-led weaning revolutionises mealtimes

Perhaps more surprising to some is the part about not chopping your baby’s food up. When spaghetti’s on the menu, I serve my daughter a mini version of what I’m having—no cutting it into tiny pieces.

Some babies are born with their first teeth, but most start teething between four and 12 months. You shouldn’t commence baby-led weaning until your baby is six months old—their body is simply not equipped to process solids before then. When I walk past a McDonald’s and a well-meaning but misguided parent’s feeding a chip to their three-month-old, I’m horrified. But when you do hit that half-year juncture, many parents don’t realise that Baby can start on solids, with or without their first teeth: all the force needed for chewing can be channelled through the gums. My daughter ate a chicken drumstick in four minutes before she’d begun teething. Now at 22 months she eats four in one sitting. It’s all about laying the foundations for a healthy, mature diet, developing at a pace that’s normal but that lots of mums and dads simply don’t know is possible.

At this point, it is of course worth iterating that the advantages of baby-led weaning are manyfold for both of you: Baby consumes a greater variety of foods at a young age, meaning they quickly grow acquainted with different flavours and textures—but you too benefit from not having to feed them while eating your own meal. By laying finger foods in front of them, your baby will instinctively play with them, tentatively taste them, then fast insist on feeding themselves come mealtime. That means a little less stress for you.

What’s more, many advocates of baby-led weaning encourage their infants to get to grips with cutlery. My daughter first tried this at six months—yes, a knife as well. You don’t expect finely developed motor skills within a week; the point again is acquainting your child with grownup dining practices and demonstrating so they can copy. (My daughter now even insists on having a napkin on her knee at mealtimes—because she’s seen Mummy do it and wants in on the fun!) More to the point, your little one is able to do this if you give them the chance. That’s what many people don’t understand about the rationale behind baby-led weaning: your baby can physically achieve so many surprising tasks which would also save you time and stress—yet they’re surprising only because modern parenting has forgotten just how adaptable and fast-developing babies actually are.

There are a few caveats, of course

Naturally, while the underlying principle of baby-led weaning is to not cut your baby’s meal up into little pieces, you still need to be careful with some specific foods. Grapes must be quartered. Blueberries must be squished between your fingers. (Raspberries you can serve whole, though.) No hot dogs, raisins, popcorn. Avoid whole peanuts. (I do, however, advocate for introducing peanuts to your baby. I did this with my daughter by mixing peanut butter into milk. Early exposure to allergens can actually protect your child from developing allergies later in life. I feel so strongly about this, in fact, that while again I reiterate you should avoid giving Baby whole peanuts, peanut was actually the only whole (solid) food I gave to my daughter before she was six months old.) And always stay with your baby while they eat.

Is baby-led weaning safe?

Parents who are unfamiliar with baby-led weaning are understandably concerned about the possibility of choking. This is partly grounded in the misunderstanding about their lack of teeth equating to an inability to chew which we saw earlier. But a 2015 study found that the method does not increase the risk of choking when compared to more traditional approaches to feeding. Parents’ concern is exacerbated when they see Baby gag—but there’s a vital difference between gagging and choking, and every mum and dad should get to know what they’re looking at. Through their gag reflex, your little one actually gets to learn more quickly where food shouldn’t go in their mouth, as well as how much it needs to have been chewed before swallowing. Moreover, once you’re familiar with the difference between this and choking, you won’t look horrified when your baby gags. This is key: as we all know, Baby looks to you to see what their reaction should be to a situation. If you freak out when they gag, they’ll just replicate that behaviour in real time. Your baby is highly attuned to your panic. But if you stay calm, present and encouraging, they’ll be fine. There are many excellent courses you can go on to recognise the difference between gagging and choking, too, and you’ll also receive professional instruction in both infant first aid and the Heimlich manoeuvre.

What type of food should I introduce to baby-led feeding?

Baby-led weaning has transformed mealtimes in my house, sure—but more importantly, it’s enabled me to introduce my daughter to a wide variety of grownup foods spanning all manner of flavours and textures. The process means she’s developing a mature palate—she loves peas, broccoli, pretty much anything I put in front of her—and we eat the exact same meal together at the table. So far she has pretty much no food aversions. (Her only dislike so far? Yolk. I reckon that’s pretty good going.) If you’re struggling with the method, try a mixed approach of spoon-feeding combined with self-feeding. Laying finger foods in front of Baby may well entail much licking, tasting and playing, while little actual eating takes place. If they’re not filling up, purées are still an option for making sure they get the nutrition they need as you continue encouraging them to explore all kinds of new foods. If you go down this route, consider preparing purées of increasing lumpiness to advance your baby’s chewing skills.

And finally, try to stay calm during baby-led weaning. That’s the single most important way to keep your little one relaxed, ensure they enjoy mealtimes—and instil in them a love of trying new foods!