Is Letting Your Baby Feed Themselves The Secret To A Happy, Healthier Eater?

13/09/2017 17:58 BST | Updated 13/09/2017 17:58 BST
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When most people think about giving babies solid foods they might imagine hours spent in the kitchen carefully following baby recipe books to steam and blend different combinations of vegetables before trying to persuade their baby to eat the food they've lovingly created. Perhaps you think of charts and timetables that instruct what and how much to give depending on age. Or shudder at the memory of freezers stocked full of tiny cubes of orangey-green creations, many of which babies turned their nose up at despite the dedication involved.

But what if there was a different way? What if babies didn't need a timetable and special foods and books seemingly complicating what parents have been doing for thousands of years? Well it's already here, having quietly crept into the baby feeding world around ten years ago and gathering speed and tens of thousands of followers ever since. It's name? Baby-led weaning.

With the baby-led weaning approach, parents ditch the recipes, spoons and tiny cubes of food and simply let their babies feed themselves. Gone are the separate baby mealtimes matched closely to the clock and a recipe schedule, and instead in its place are family meal times where everyone enjoys the same meal, albeit some more messily than others.

Some might question this isn't anything new. It's what parents have done for years, especially with subsequent children. But when the guidelines changed to recommend babies were introduced to solid foods at around six months, it suddenly made a whole lot more sense from the start. Six month olds can sit up, put food in their mouth and chew it in a way that four month olds can't. Yes, even if they don't have teeth.

But why the sudden surge in parents choosing to offer solids this way? Aside from many finding it easier and less stressful, it may be because of news headlines and articles that suggest that baby-led weaning might help your baby to become a better eater and healthier weight. And indeed this isn't just a suggestion, growing research now points towards this. Babies who follow baby-led weaning are less likely to be overweight as toddlers and children (although not all research shows this). They're also more likely to eat a wide variety of foods and be seen as less fussy.

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Photo credit: Jane Woodley

But if this is true, how does it happen? Are spoons and traditional weaning foods really that bad? Most likely not. What is more likely is that underlying elements of the baby-led approach encourage healthier eating habits. For a start, it would be very difficult to follow baby-led weaning with a baby under around six months old. You have to wait until they are ready to self-feed and research shows that waiting until six months can help reduce the risk of overweight and fussy eating.

Baby-led weaning also means your baby will probably take longer to eat, simply because it takes longer to pick up food and chew it than it does to swallow a puree. We know that in adults, those of us who eat faster are more likely to be overweight. We eat faster than our brain and stomach can recognize we are full. The same may well be true for babies - taking a leisurely lunch means they might be more likely to recognize when they are full.

Then there is the fact that when babies can self feed they can stop as soon as they feel full, rather than accepting a few bites more because it's being offered. Most babies are born with the ability to regulate their appetite fairly well but gradually they learn for various reasons to over eat. Research with older children shows that when parents encourage them to eat more even when they're full, this can break down their ability to control how much they eat. They get used to eating because someone else tells them to or because it's a certain time or there is food on the plate. We all know adults now still feel guilty about not cleaning their plates and carry on eating when they're full.

The types of food offered might also be important. After all, if we try a new food as adults we'd probably like to try it in its real rather than pureed form. We'd be more likely to taste a new food if it looked appealing. Related to this, food isn't just about hunger - it's a learning experience. When a baby picks up a food they don't just learn what it tastes like but what it feels like, how it smells and what happens if they squish or break it. It's likely this makes them keener to try it again.

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Photo credit: Author

Finally, mealtimes can be different when you have a baby who is following baby-led weaning. They're more likely to join in family meals rather than being fed separately, which helps babies to learn about mealtimes and coming together. It also means the pressure is off and they can eat at a more leisurely pace, copying those around them.

So do spoons make babies fat and fussy? No. But it is likely that the wider experience of being introduced to solids and those early encounters shapes their preferences. But, much of the underlying elements of baby-led weaning are important however you choose to introduce solids. If you prefer purees and spoon-feeding, delay starting until around six months, offer a variety of foods and let them join in meal times with you. Most importantly, make sure you go at your baby's own pace. Look to their cues not what a book, schedule or jar size suggests.

Most importantly, try not to worry. Most babies get enough despite never having read the recipe books. Some research suggests that mums who follow baby-led weaning are less anxious about what about how much their baby is eating. Maybe this laid back attitude is the real reason why baby--led mealtimes are easier and baby-led babies happier to eat.

For more on starting solids, baby-led weaning and responsive feeding, 'Why Starting Solids Matters' published by Pinter and Martin is out now.