Baby led weaning could cut obesity in later life
WEANING babies on finger foods rather than spoon-fed purees could prevent them becoming obese in later childhood, according to new research.
Allowing babies to feed themselves from a selection of foods, including bread, means they learn to regulate their own food intake.
Babies who self-feed with solids are also more likely to prefer carbohydrates than spoon-fed babies, who tend to favour sweet things, the study found.
Researchers analysed two methods of weaning - baby-led weaning with finger foods, versus traditional spoon-feeding by parents.
The sample included 92 children who had been weaned on finger foods and 63 who were traditionally spoon-fed.
Parents filled in questionnaires on how their children had been weaned, including how often they ate certain foods.
They noted their child's preference for 151 foods broken down into categories such as carbohydrates, proteins, fruit, savoury snacks, dairy and "whole meals" such as lasagne.
Foods were rated from 1, where the baby "loves it", to five, where the baby "hates it".
The results showed no difference in picky eating between the groups but slightly less obesity in the baby-led group, even after controlling for factors likely to influence the results.
These children also had a "significantly increased liking for carbohydrates", which was their favourite food, compared to those who had been spoon-fed, who favoured sweet things.
The baby-led group was also more likely to have handled food from the moment solid food was introduced, and fewer in this group had been given pureed foods at all.
Some 94pc of youngsters in the baby-led group had never choked as a result of being given solid foods.
The authors, writing in the journal BMJ Open, concluded: "Our results suggest that infants weaned through the baby-led approach learn to regulate their food intake in a manner which leads to a lower BMI (body mass index) and a preference for healthy foods like carbohydrates.
"This has implications for combating the well-documented rise of obesity in contemporary societies."
The experts, from the University of Nottingham, said 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 in obesogenic food environments".
They added: "Our findings show that baby-led weaning has a positive impact on the liking for carbohydrates - foods that form the building blocks of healthy nutrition.
"This is a significant finding since, to date, the factors thought to be most influential on early food preferences are sweetness and familiarity (exposure)."
Presenting carbohydrates to babies as whole foods, such as toast, rather than purees "may highlight awareness of perceptual features (such as texture) that is masked when food is pureed", they went on.
"Previous research has shown that food presentation significantly influences food preferences, so it is possible that differences in the presentation of foods across the two weaning groups impacted on preferences.
"It is also possible that carbohydrates are easier to masticate compared to some other foods such as meat (which may be easier to eat when pureed and spoon-fed)."
The 155 children were aged between 20 months and six years when their parents completed the questionnaires.
Tam Fry, from the National Obesity Forum, said: "Babies have this wonderful rapport with their mother when breastfeeding and indicate how much milk they want and when they are ready to go on to solids."
Therefore, it "seems quite logical" that they may also know best when it comes to food while being weaned, he said.
"It is important that they experience all five food groups and experiment with variety as much as possible.
"If half of it finishes on the floor, so be it - the value of experimentation in the early months of nutrition is incalculable and babies won't willingly starve themselves.
"If this also has the advantage of reducing unhealthy weight gain and avoiding obesity, it's a win-win for mums."