Skip the spoon-fed puree and let babies go straight to finger foods, a new study suggests. Babies who learn to feed themselves early on may develop healthier eating habits and be less likely to become overweight.
Researchers call it “baby-led weaning” — letting infants wean themselves from breast milk or formula by self-feeding bits of cut-up table foods, rather than being spoon-fed by the parent.
The study, published this week in BMJ Open, included 155 children aged 20 months to 6 1/2 years. Parents filled out questionnaires about their feeding and weaning practices, the children’s food preferences and their height and weight.
More kids had been weaned on finger foods (92) than on spoon-fed purees (63), and the researchers found some key differences between them: finger-fed babies preferred carbs — like toast and pita breads — over sweets, while spoon-fed children liked sweet foods most. On average, the baby-led group were at a healthy weight; in comparison, the spoon-fed kids were more likely to be overweight or obese. The researchers accounted for other factors that could contribute to eating habits or weight, such as breast-feeding, family income and parents’ obesity.
The findings might seem counterintuitive, but letting babies self-feed while weaning may help them become more mindful of their own appetites and learn to eat accordingly, researchers said. It also encourages a less controlling parental style and keeps anxious parents from shoveling too much food in babies’ mouths. Plus, giving infants whole foods to start may encourage healthier food preferences overall. The authors write:
Presenting carbohydrates to infants in their whole food format, such as toast, rather than a pureed form may highlight awareness of perceptual features (such as texture) that is masked when food is pureed. Previous research has shown that food presentation significantly influences food preferences.
Experts say parents should feel free to let kids feed themselves as long as they give them nutritious options, such as fruits and vegetables, low-sodium proteins, complex carbs and foods that are high in iron like hard-boiled eggs. For busy parents, there’s an added benefit: it takes less time to cut up food from the table than to puree special foods for baby.