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Baby-led weaning: food and the minefield of parenting advice

Parents are bombarded with information about how best to raise their children, often coupled with the threat of nasties, such as childhood obesity and developing neuroses, if they choose not to follow…

How babies are introduced to solids may have an impact on their future health. Gail/Flickr

Parents are bombarded with information about how best to raise their children, often coupled with the threat of nasties, such as childhood obesity and developing neuroses, if they choose not to follow.

Part of the problem is that ideas are sometimes not quite proven when they start being recommended. A study published in JAMA today, for instance, has linked the development of diabetes to when babies are introduced to solids. It contradicts the infant feeding guidelines from the National Health and Medical Research Council that solids should be introduced at around six months of age.

Whom to believe?

Not only is the timing of introducing solids important for future health, research shows that how babies are introduced to solids may also have an impact (this time the bogeyman is obesity). When it comes to weaning, a small but growing body of evidence is showing that baby may know best.

Baby-led weaning

The most common method of moving babies from a liquid to solid diet is to spoon-feed them smooth purees of bland foods. But a practice called “baby-led weaning” has become popular in recent years.

This involves offering a baby pieces of food that she can place in her mouth. The emphasis of baby-led weaning is to let the infant control what goes in her mouth, which allows for play and exploration.

Proponents of the practice claim that baby-led weaning leads to better self regulation of food intake and an easier transition to family meals, as well facilitating a wider range of solid foods being consumed.

Baby-led weaning follows a developmental approach on a continuum from demand feeding at the breast in infancy through to supported, responsive feeding of toddlers.

So far, so good. But what about the evidence?

Not quite enough research

A report published in BMJ Open last year indicated that this weaning style leads to reduced maternal anxiety and promotes healthy food preferences, which may have a long-term impact on weight.

But the study was small (155 participants) and relied on mothers' memories about early solids when their babies were between two and six-and-a-half years old. It also relied on the respondents' idea of weaning style as there’s no standard definition of baby-led weaning.

The most common method of moving babies from a liquid to solid diet is to spoon-feed them smooth purees of bland foods. Shutterstock

It found that infants who were allowed to feed themselves had minimal or no spoon-fed purees and earlier finger foods, were significantly more likely to prefer carbohydrate foods such as bread and toast. The same children also showed a preference for all food categories compared to the spoon-fed group.

The researchers found an increased incidence of obesity in the spoon-fed group, and concluded that baby-led weaning promotes healthy food preferences.

The small study size and its retrospective method does not make this a strong finding and more robust research is needed before baby-led weaning can be recommended generally. There’s plenty of interest in the community in the practice so research is clearly warranted.

Pros and cons

But it’s possible that baby-led weaning could lead to reduced intakes of nutrients that are important for infants (such as iron and zinc) while the child learns to chew and bite.

Many common weaning foods are difficult for infants to feed themselves (rice cereal, for instance, and yoghurt) but given opportunity and practice, infants do manage.

A key aspect of baby-led weaning is the importance of supervision and supported sitting to ensure the child doesn’t choke and literature about baby-led weaning emphasises the importance of this.

But supervision doesn’t have to be a chore. Allowing babies to eat at the same time as the other family members means they learn by watching others and quickly develop skills required for eating.

Baby-led weaning is not suitable for all babies as premature or developmentally delayed children may have different needs. But it does seem to have some rewards for parents, such as increased variety and healthier food preferences.

Indeed, the experience of starting lumpy foods earlier (before nine months) has been shown to lead to better intake of a variety of foods, especially fruit and vegetables, at seven years of age.

And baby-led weaning reduces the need for preparation of special foods for infants. A practice that makes parents' life easier? Now that may well be advice worth following.

Join the conversation

8 Comments sorted by

  1. Julie Leslie

    GIS Coordinator

    Hmm. It still sounds pretty weak. It also sets up people for some wicked parent guilt: "If you don't start you baby eating correctly from the start, your baby will be FAT! And probably STUPID!" (Ok the emphasis is mine, but you get the drift - actually if you read the recent breastfeeding article it does say you baby will be stupid if you don't breastfeed - I found that manipulative and disheartening)

    I am not a researcher in the area, but I think eating habits and obesity are a bit more complex…

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  2. rory robertson

    logged in via email @gmail.com

    Thanks for your piece, Evelyn. My kids now are weaned - up and running, healthy, and growing fast and lean. So far, so good, but I can confirm your observation that "Parents are bombarded with [faulty] information about how best to raise their children, often coupled with the threat of nasties, such as childhood obesity...". One self-published yet "peer-reviewed" scientific claim that parents and others who eat should take with a large grain of salt is the University of Sydney's false claim of "an…

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  3. Marie Smith

    Researcher

    My 11 month old has not seen any 'purees' for the last 5 month she started solids. We spoon-feed her plain yoghurt and soups. She loves her food and she still has a little bit of milk.
    The other interesting thing with this 'method' is that as a parent you don't have to buy special food, often processed food, and you can quickly share most of the meals you cook for yourself. She has been having lunch or dinner with us for the last 4 months. It is really nice to share this and to start making 'eating' a social event more than just a 'primary need'.
    It also does mean less packages to recycle, less labels reading and more control over the nutritive content...One difficulty is that it is possibly harder to be certain than the baby has the right amount, as when they grow, they tend to be easily distracted, although they may still need to eat.

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    1. Stacey Fisher

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Marie Smith

      There is no more reason to feed your baby processed purees as processed finger food. There are plenty of chicken in a box options for BLW'ers. For the short period my son did a mix of BLW and purees (I found the findings on carbs with finger foods to be true so fed protein based purees until he had the teeth to chomp through meat) we froze portions of purees and heated them when he was ready to eat them.

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  4. Stacey Fisher

    logged in via Facebook

    The single greatest indicator of whether your child will become obese, stupid or boring is, in my humble opinion (which is supported by the science at least as far as IQ and obesity is concerned), genetics, but by all means give BLW a red hot go if it's convenient (we found it is) and you like the idea (we did).

    We waited until our son showed an interest in food (around 5 months) and did a mix of BLW and purees (so we knew he was getting enough nutrients). At 19 months he still only has 7 teeth…

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  5. Richard Hockey

    logged in via Facebook

    "It contradicts the infant feeding guidelines from the National Health and Medical Research Council that solids should be introduced at around six months of age."
    Problem with the NHMRC guidelines they used the term 'evidence' very loosely. The most recent guidelines seem to be guided more by ideology than scientific evidence.
    The recent JAMA pediatrics article on T1 diabetes will only provide more angst for parents as it only allows a 2 month window to introduce solids.

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  6. Tyson Adams

    Scientist and author

    Topics not discussed: the horrendous mess made as baby repeatedly fails to put food into ear, let alone mouth; lack of eating and weight gain associated with first point.

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  7. Sue Ieraci

    Public hospital clinician

    Thanks for a great article. Yet another example of dietary evidence being mis-used, over-simplified and used to make some people feel superior and others feel inadequate and guilty - as modern parenting culture is wont to do.

    The fact is, there is no universal ideal diet. When, how and what babies are weaned onto depends on a whole host of factors - culture, tradition, family, available ingredients, lifestyle, income, childcare, parental food preferences, climate - and much more.

    Should an Innuit baby be weaned with the same principles as a New Guinea highlander? A Malaysian of Nonya background? An urban Vietnamese baby the same as a Colombian of Spanish origin, or an indigenous Colombian from the mountains?

    The quest to be optimally svelte, healthy and intellectual sparkling is not worth it if it results in guilt, paranoia and neurosis. We need to teach our children to enjoy good food, not to fear it.

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