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Baby-Led Weaning Leads to Leaner Kids

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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baby eating food weaning

Image courtesy of iStockphoto/lisegagne

Those little pursed lips and that tiny crinkled nose might not just mean that your baby isn’t a fan of pureed peas or mashed sweet potatoes. Some of the refusals to all of those “here-comes-the-airplane” attempts to feed a weaning infant might also be the child’s way of saying that she or he is just not hungry.

New research suggests that babies who are given more control over their own food intake as they’re being weaned off of breast milk or formula might end up with healthier body weights. The findings were published online Monday in British Medical Journal.

In the study, parents of 155 children reported how they weaned their child—whether they let babies feed themselves with finger foods—”baby-led”—or if parents fed the babies—”spoon-fed.” The researchers also recorded each child’s food preferences, what types of foods they ate and body weight and length.

Babies that had been spoon-fed were more likely to eat a wider variety of foods, but they tended to prefer sweet foods and to be overweight when compared with those who had been eating finger foods on their own. “Our results suggest that baby-led weaning promotes healthy food preferences in early childhood that could protect against obesity,” wrote the researchers, Ellen Townsend and Nicola Pitchford, of the University of Nottingham’s School of Psychology.

One common concern that parents and doctors report having about letting young children feed themselves fistfuls of food—choking—was only reported by a couple parents in the baby-lead group.

Babies who were introduced to solid foods more through their own eating preferred carbohydrate-based foods more than those who had been fed purees and, unlike the spoon-fed group, had a small proportion (3 percent) that were underweight. Both groups of parents reported a similar rate of pickiness. A preference for veggies seemed to be more linked to higher socio-economic status than to weaning style.

Recent research has suggested that some of the earliest flavors we encounter can shape our food preferences for life, and researchers who have studied infant diets suggest that parents might be able to help their children enjoy healthful foods by giving them more whole, fresh foods and less infant formula. “Understanding the factors that contribute to healthy nutrition in early childhood is crucial as this could be the optimal time to modify food preferences so as to foster healthy diets,” the researchers wrote.

Katherine Harmon Courage About the Author: Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Scientific American. Her book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea is out now from Penguin/Current. Follow on Twitter @KHCourage.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. 11:58 pm 02/6/2012

    COOL! We had great success and a lot of fun doing baby-led weaning. Now we have a study to back up its benefits.

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  2. 2. 12:18 am 02/7/2012

    btw, this is the book that introduced us to the concept:

    I’d recommend it to anyone interested in exploring baby-led weaning.

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  3. 3. mwenner 10:53 am 02/7/2012

    I think it’s important to point out that the “babies” in this study were 20 to 78 months old. It’s a big trend now to do baby-led weaning with much younger babies, like 4-6 month olds, and to not spoon feed at all. But I’m not sure there’s a lot of research backing up the safety of this practice. I know a few moms who did it, for instance, and ended up with underweight kids. Babies develop their fine motor skills at different times, and some simply may not be able to bring food to their mouths at such a young age. Our son couldn’t feed himself until he was about 8 months old.

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  4. 4. barucha 3:22 pm 02/7/2012

    mwenner, that trend you spoke of is what was indeed being studied. Please see the last paragraph of the ‘Methods’ section of the study:

    “As no formal definition of baby-led weaning exists, parental self-report of weaning style was used to generate weaning groups. To verify the veracity of self-reported weaning style, responses to items concerning weaning methods were interrogated. This confirmed that the baby-led group were more likely to have handled food from the introduction of solid foods, were given finger foods earlier and fewer had been spoon-fed with pureed foods at all (table 1). Thus, the two groups differed significantly on criteria typically used to characterise baby-led weaning.”

    In Table 1, the average age for introduction of finger foods for the baby-led weaning group was 6.49 months. Yes, some babies may not be able to feed themselves at that age, hence the fact that it is an average age. Some babies began feeding themselves earlier and some later.

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  5. 5. barucha 3:24 pm 02/7/2012

    And I do believe that this study does something to prove the safety of the practice.

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  6. 6. Vachi 7:09 am 02/10/2012

    I find it interesting that the preference for vegies was linked to higher socioeconomic status. It seems safe to assume that this is because those who are well-off are more likely to use a variety of fresh vegetables, as opposed to canned or even frozen, which lack much of the original flavor.

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  7. 7. lj237209 5:16 pm 02/12/2012

    I can agree with this blog fully. It makes sense that if you let a child choose when they are hungry to feed them that in the long run they will not be over weight or obese. I read a book titled “Intuitive Eating” that is about listening to your inner hungry clock to decide when to eat. Many people today eat when they think they should eat, just because it’s lunch time doesn’t mean you have to eat. Instead, really paying attention to when you are hungry is the best way to maintain a health weight. With that said, letting an infant tune into the intuitive eating idea will lead to a healthy eating lifestyle. The second aspect of this blog discusses taste rather than amount. I agree that introduced healthy foods into an infants diet will increase the chances that the individual will grow up to prefer healthy foods.

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  8. 8. js274608 6:32 pm 02/22/2012

    I agree with this blog. I have younger cousins who were practically forced to eat certain baby foods when they were infants and now they don’t eat very well, they are reluctant to finish their meals and when they do eat, they crave junk food. I think that children that are given more freedom to feed themselves are more likely to eat in general and decide for themselves what tastes good to them. The lack of stress on them while eating also seems like it would play a role in their willingness to try different foods. Introducing healthy foods without forcing them would appear to be the best method to creating a good relationship between a child and the food they eat.

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