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Baby Knows Best! Study Shows Baby-Led Weaning Promotes Healthy Food Preferences

February 9, 2012

A new study by psychologists at The University of Nottingham has shown that babies who are weaned using solid finger food are more likely to develop healthier food preferences and are less likely to become overweight as children than those who are spoon-fed pureed food.

The research just published by BMJ Open set out to examine the impact of weaning style on food preferences and Body Mass Index in early childhood in a sample of 155 children.

Co-author of the study, Associate Professor in the School of Psychology, Dr Ellen Townsend, said: “Although numerous studies have focused on when to introduce solid foods into an infant´s diet there is a dearth of evidence concerning the impact of different weaning methods on food preferences and health prospects. We believe our report is the first piece of research to examine whether weaning method can influence food preferences and the future health of the child.”

Co-researcher Dr Nicola Pitchford, added: “Our study has produced some very interesting findings. The research suggests that baby-led weaning has a positive impact on the liking of foods that form the building blocks of healthy nutrition, such as carbohydrates. Baby-led weaning promotes healthy food preferences in early childhood which may protect against obesity.”

The researchers enlisted the Nottingham Toddler Lab, based in the School of Psychology, and various relevant websites to recruit parent volunteers for the study. They all had children between the ages of 20 months and 6½ years and agreed to complete a questionnaire about their experiences of infant feeding and weaning style. 92 parents used baby-led weaning in which the baby is allowed to feed him or herself from a range of solid finger food after the age of 6 months. 63 parents surveyed used traditional spoon-feeding in which they fed their babies smooth purees and increased the texture and range of foods as they grew.

The study also examined the child´s preference for 151 different types of food in the common food categories of carbohydrates, proteins and dairy etc. It also took into account the frequency of consumption of each food type and the effect of age on food preference.

Between the two weaning groups, significant differences in preference were found for only one food category — the baby-led group liked carbohydrates more than the spoon-fed group. In fact, carbohydrates was the most liked food category for the baby-led group whereas sweet foods was most liked by the spoon-fed group.

The psychologists believe that understanding the factors that contribute to healthy nutrition in early childhood is crucial as this could be the best time to modify food preferences to encourage healthy diets. The findings show that baby-led weaning has a positive impact on the liking of carbohydrates – foods that form the building blocks of healthy nutrition. This is a significant result since, up to now, the factors thought to be most influential on early food preferences are sweetness and frequency of exposure.

It was found that children´s preference and rate of exposure to foods were not influenced by socially desirable responding, i.e. parents putting down what they think they should report, or socio-economic status, although an increased liking of vegetables was associated with higher social class. There was an increased incidence of underweight children in the baby-led group and higher obesity rates in the spoon-fed group. But, no difference in picky eating was found between the two weaning groups.

The research project concludes that weaning style does have an impact on food preferences and health in early childhood. The results suggest that infants weaned through the baby-led method learn to regulate their food intake in a way which leads to a lower BMI and a preference for healthy foods like carbohydrates. The research team believe their work has important implications for combating the well-documented rise of obesity in contemporary society.

The full report ℠Baby knows best? The impact of weaning style on food preferences and Body Mass Index in early childhood in a case-controlled sample´ can be found at http://bmjopen.bmj.com/

The authors are gathering reactions to this study and have created a very short questionnaire which can be completed online here.

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