So, does the latest research prove that baby led weaning is better than traditional?

Well, short answer is, no. But as to the reasons why, read on…
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I was very interested to see the pretty definitive statements in last week’s Daily Mail “Spoon-fed babies are ‘more likely to become obese’ because their bodies don’t recognise when they are full” and in the Independent “Spoonfed babies more likely to be overweight”. 

What is Babyled Weaning?

Babyled weaning is an approach advocated by Gill Rapley where whole foods are offered to babies from the start of weaning (about 6 months) and no spoon-feeding or help is offered by the parent.

What is “traditional” weaning?

Babies are offered either wholly spoon fed pureed food (moving from pureed to chopped through the weaning process) or a mixture of spoon fed purees alongside finger food that they can hold and taste themselves. The age that parents introduce finger foods  varies. The ideal is to wean around 6 months with a mixture of purees alongside finger food.

As the Caroline Walker Trust state in their Eating well: first year of life practical guideMany of the ideas from baby-led weaning already form part of the good weaning practices currently recommended. Encouraging babies to be involved in meal times, to eat similar foods to those enjoyed by others at the table, to hold finger foods and spoons and to try to feed themselves are all recommended practices.”

The research

The research that the papers reported on was conducted at Swansea University by Dr Amy Brown and Michelle Lee and was published in Pediatric Obesity. I won’t report on the details of the study as you can read it in the Journal and it does make for interesting reading. The findings suggest that babies who were baby led weaning (based on the researchers categorisation) may respond better to satiety signals and may also be less likely to be overweight.

The sample was made up of  298 parents who completed  questionnaires at both stages of data collection. Participants were self-selecting which means that they elected to take part in the research and were not therefore randomly selected. So the sample cannot be said to be representative of the general population.

The data was self-reported, in questionnaires, including an estimation of the child’s weight and therefore may be subject to responder bias. For instance parents who adopt baby led weaning approach may have strongly believed in it and its outcomes and this may have had an impact on their responses in the questionnaire.

The baby led weaning group was identified as those who pureed/spoon-fed 10% or less of their baby’s food. So the spoon fed weaning group (SW) was  made up of mothers who introduced pureed and finger food at the beginning of weaning or introduced finger food later and mothers who wholly spoon fed. To include such wide ranging approaches in one group does not make sense. Perhaps stratifying into different groups, would have given more insight into how different weaning approaches impact on satiety signals at a later stage.

The researchers demonstrated a correlation between infants who were spoon fed 10% or less and higher responsiveness to satiety signals. It does not demonstrate causation, so  no link has been found between the two.

The difficulty with this type of research is that it is social science, so is not carried out in the lab. So there is always a certain amount of pragmatism needed when designing such studies – there is always a tension between keeping the situation as real to life as possible and maintaining a good level of scientific rigour. The researchers did not interfere or observe the weaning process. Which in itself could have changed behaviour of participants.

The researchers accepted the limitations of the study and conclude that this research indicates that further research using a randomised control trial is needed.

How you wean

Parents need to wean in a way that suits their baby’s and their own needs.

What research tells us is that handling food is an essential part of the weaning process as it encourages babies/children to accept different textures and consistencies and be open to trying new foods.

This is not unique to baby led weaning, good practice traditional weaning consists of pureed foods/spoonfed alongside finger foods from the beginning – around 6 months.

If babies are wholly spoon fed and therefore not able to explore food with their hands it is possible that this can lead to “fussiness”. If babies are fed mainly or wholly ready made baby food this can lead to food fussiness as jars or sachets have same consistency and flavour, unlike freshly prepared foods.

Conversely, the possible downsides of baby led weaning is that baby may not choose to eat as wide a variety of foods as parents would include in purees/chopped up foods. They may also play with food more than eat it. Also early on in the weaning process when baby is getting used to grasping and handling food, they may not eat enough protein, iron, or zinc to meet their nutrient needs.

Be responsive to your baby’s cue’s too. If 90% of our communication is body language, it’s not hard to tell if your baby likes what they are eating, is full or wants more, give them time to pause and chew.

You know your baby and their needs best, do what suits them and you, just let them make a mess whether it’s babyled or finger food and purees.

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