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Observations

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Baby-Led Weaning Leads to Leaner Kids

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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.

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

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