Parents are bombarded with information about how best to raise their children. When it comes to feeding them, this information is often coupled with the threat of nasties, such as childhood obesity and developing neuroses, if they choose not to follow different sets of guidelines.
Part of the problem is that ideas are sometimes not quite proven when they start being recommended. A study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), 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, which states that solids should be introduced at around six months of age.
So which advice should parents 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 (in this case, the bogeyman is obesity). But when it comes to weaning, a small but growing body of evidence is showing that baby may know best.
The most common method of moving babies from a liquid to solid diet is to spoon-feed them a smooth purée of bland foods. But a practice called “baby-led weaning” has become popular in recent years; this involves offering a baby pieces of food 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 (with only 155 participants) and relied on mothers' memories about early solids when their babies were already 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.
It found that infants who were allowed to feed themselves had minimal or no spoon-fed purées, as well as 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 practice so research is clearly warranted.
Pros and cons
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. 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 other family members means they learn by watching others, and quickly develop skills required for eating.
Baby-led weaning isn’t suitable for all babies, as premature or developmentally delayed children may have different needs. But it does seem to have some rewards for parents, possibly leading to 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.
Baby-led weaning also reduces the need for preparation of special foods for infants. A practice that makes the lives of parents easier? Now that may well be advice worth following.
Evelyn Volders is a senior lecturer at Monash University and convenes the Bachelor of Nutrition & Dietetics.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.