The weaning period may be an exciting and messy time for parents who have started the introduction of solid and table foods to their toddlers. Bu it's important to remember that the delivery mode of nutrition during infancy could have an impact upon the child’s weight and eating style. According to a recent study, babies who are spoon-fed puréed foods face a higher risk of childhood obesity and fussy eating than those taught to eat solids via a baby-led weaning approach.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests that parents feed babies only breast milk for the first six months of life, followed by a combination of solid foods and breast milk until the child is at least 1 year old. Traditionally, parents begin to introduce solid foods, such as purées, by spoon-feeding their babies. The AAP recommends to start with half a spoonful or less and talk to the baby in the process so they can being to feel comfortable swallowing food.

But the trational spoon-feeding approach has been challenged by baby-led weaning advocates who believe allowing infants to self-feed will promote healthy eating habits in the future. Babies who are baby-weaned are taught to consume finger foods first, rather than purées, which teaches them to learn how to chew from the start — rather than starting with only swallowing. The Babyexpert says offering baby foods like bread fingers, cooked vegetables, or pasta shapes will help them grasp with their hands and move their mouths so they can begin to chew effectively. Although this approach may be messy, UK researchers suggest that a baby-led feeding style minimizes a baby’s chance of overeating and being overweight during their youth.

In a study recently published in the journal Pediatric Obesity, a team of researchers at Swansea University sought to compare child eating behavior at 18 to 24 months between infants weaned via spoon-feeding and baby-led. Over 290 mothers with an infant aged 6 to 12 months were recruited as the sample size.

The Child Feeding Questionnaire measured the duration of breastfeeding, timing of solid foods, weaning style, and maternal control, which was reported by the mothers in phase I of the study. When the infants were between 18 to 24 months, the mothers completed a follow-up questionnaire that examined child eating style. The questions delved into the baby’s satiety-responsiveness, food-responsiveness, fussiness, enjoyment of food, and reported child weight.

Toddlers who were taught the baby-led weaning approach were found to have a healthier weight than spoon-fed babies. The researchers found that self-feeding helped this group develop the ability to stop eating when they were full, and they were less fussy eaters than spoon-fed babies. Factor such as the mother’s background, birth weight, weaning age, and breastfeeding were accounted for prior to coming to any conclusions.

"Our study indicates that taking a baby-led approach to weaning may reduce a baby's risk of being overweight as they are in control of their food intake,” said Dr. Amy Brown, from Swansea University, The Telegraph reported. “This results in the baby being better able to control his or her appetite which could have a long-term impact upon weight gain and eating style that may continue into childhood.”

In the study, parental child-feeding style was associated with poorer appetite regulation and a decreased ability to regulate intake according to appetite. Toddlers who experienced restricted food intake were more likely to overeat and increase their fussiness with food due to the pressure they felt by their mothers to eat.

The study highlights the significant role maternal control and an early feeding environment has on a child’s body mass index and weight gain. "Responsive feeding, which means allowing the child to regulate their own appetite and not pressurizing them to eat more than they need, is a really important step in encouraging children to develop healthy eating patterns for life,” Brown said. Baby-led weaning may provide a protective effect against childhood obesity and other weight gain-related illnesses.

Source: Brown A and Lee MD. Early influences on child satiety-responsiveness: the role of weaning style. Pediatric Obesity. 2013.