3 min
October 16, 2022

Teach Your Baby To Eat With Strategic Gagging

“That’s a big bite!” I said cheerfully. But in my head I was screaming, “Nooo, too big! Stop!” 

My 6-month-old had just picked up his first food, a 3-inch strip of cooked zucchini, and stuffed half of it in his mouth. Then George gagged. His eyes watered, his whole face turned red, and he appeared to stop breathing for a second that felt like an entire minute. I stopped breathing, too.

But everything was going according to plan.

My husband and I had just learned a counterintuitive approach to feeding our son real food. The online course called Feeding Littles taught us that the best way to teach our baby how to chew was with strategic gagging

This was my first experience with baby-led weaning. And it was kind of horrifying.

Weaning is the process of introducing food other than milk to an infant. Baby-led weaning puts the baby in charge. He feeds himself - or tries to - while the parents watch closely and sit on their hands.

When I asked every parent friend about a baby’s first food I heard a mixed response. Most said rice cereal because it’s easy to digest and doesn't trigger an allergic reaction. 

Turns out rice cereal is also full of toxic heavy metals

Others mentioned this thing called baby-led weaning, which can lead to faster development of hand/eye coordination, dexterity, chewing skills, and their pincer (thumb and forefinger) grasp. Plus, babies who eat this way often turn into adventurous little eaters!

So instead of spoon feeding George arsenic as my mom and mother-in-law unwittingly suggested, my husband and I tried baby-led weaning. 

First, we had to figure out if George was even ready for real food. Rule of thumb is 6 months old, but if I’ve learned anything as a new mom it’s that every baby is different. For example, I didn’t know it was possible for a 6-month-old to have a temper, but when my son isn’t happy he holds his breath, turns red, and straightens his arms and legs as tight as he can. 

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Here are signs that your child is ready for real food:

  • Sitting with minimal assistance
  • Good head and trunk control
  • Bringing hands and toys to mouth
  • Can track something moving with his eyes
  • Leans forward toward food in his chair
  • Interest in food (e.g. reaching for your food)

We started putting George in his highchair at 5 months old and he sat with us at the table while we ate dinner. He checked everything on the list except grabbing for our food. Instead, he stared intently with curiosity at the big hunk of steak on my plate. That was enough for me.

Once he was ready the transition had to be slow. Food is alien to a baby, at first. For George it was downright scary. He whimpered the first time he touched a piece of squash. Not to mention we put him in this ridiculous crinkly shirt-bib and he wanted OUT. The food didn’t even come near his mouth. (We have since ditched the bib and instead, strip him down to his diaper.)

In the beginning it was less about consuming food and more about exposing him to it. The expert instructors called it a “sensory experience.” It allowed him to get used to the textures of the food with his hands before actually attempting to eat it. 

And then came the counterintuitive part - start with strips of food the size of an adult finger. Anything from broccolini to bell pepper to banana to avocado.* Firm enough to hold in his hands but soft enough to squish between your fingers.

But won’t he choke on such a big piece of food??

This was the fear. 

Here’s where I learned about the difference between gagging and choking.

An adult’s gag reflex is at the back of their throat, whereas a baby’s is mid-tongue. Gagging is the baby’s body’s way of protecting his airway. Gagging is a good thing. And it involves sound. They might cough, sputter, turn red, or their eyes will water. But they’ll recover within a few seconds and you will see the food pushing forward in their mouth so they can either chew it or spit it out.

Choking is silent and they might turn blue. This is every parent’s nightmare emergency.

Gagging teaches them to chew first with the back gums, then swallow. So if you’re spoon feeding them purees, they’re not learning how to chew until later. (Maybe baby-led weaning is intuitive.)

But until he gets the hang of it, there will be gagging.

Which led to his first bite of zucchini that had me silently panicking while trying my hardest to trust the process. 

I was supposed to watch closely and stay calm. The course warned against grabbing the food from the back of his mouth because it could push it further back. And even though I’d watched a 10-minute video of baby-after-baby eating and gagging on food and smiling at the end of it, I didn’t know how it would turn out for MY baby. All the videos in the world couldn’t help me if my son started choking. 

But then, magic. George did exactly what those beautiful instructors in the course said he would do. He gagged, the food pushed back to the front of his mouth, it fell onto his tray, and he smiled. He might as well have just said his first word or took his first step. Or landed his first job. I was that proud.

I sent a video to my mom of George eating the piece of zucchini. Mom texted back, “He doesn’t seem to like it!” 

Sure, George made a funny face when he ate the zucchini, but the beauty of baby-led weaning was that he was doing it himself. He was in control. So even though he was making faces, he kept going back for more. 

It’s only been one week and George has come a long way. Since that first day when he whimpered at the food, he’s eaten zucchini, squash, avocado, broccolini, banana, cooked egg, and peanut butter.  

I suppose the verdict is still out, but I’m a fan of baby-led weaning so far. More importantly, I think George is, too.


*There are choking hazard foods to avoid in the beginning, like raw carrots, globs of nut butter, or apples and grapes with skin on.

Much thanks to Michael Dean for feedback on this essay.