Spoon feeding babies, who are given mashed up fruits and vegetables appear to have a sweeter tooth, a Nottingham University team found after studying 155 children. Infants who are instead allowed to feed themselves solids tend to favour more satiating carbohydrates like toast.
The researchers found spoon-fed babies were more often obese, although, overall, most of the youngsters in both groups were a healthy weight. This weight difference remained even after the investigators accounted for other factors that might have influenced the findings, such the baby’s birth weight, how long they were breastfed for and whether their parents were rich or poor.
Dr Ellen Townsend, who led the research, believes baby-led weaning – where the child is offered a range of chunky foods to grab and self-feed – sets the stage for healthy eating in early childhood.
The ages of the 155 children who took part in the study ranged between 20 months and six years. Questionnaires filled in by their parents revealed those children who were introduced early to finger foods developed a preference for carbohydrates like toasted pitta bread and pasta over sweeter foods like sugary fruit purees.
Dr Townsend said: “It could be an age of introduction effect that we are seeing. Carbohydrates are ideal finger foods. You are handing over control and letting the baby decide how much they want to eat. With spoon feeding there is the temptation to get into whatever is left in the bowl or the jar.”
Rosie Dodds of the National Childbirth Trust said the findings suggested that it was safe to let babies feed themselves and choose their own foods when they were ready.
And Tam Fry, of the National Obesity Forum, said it was “quite logical” that babies might inherently know best when it came to which weaning foods to eat. It is important that they experience all five food groups and experiment with variety as much as possible. The value of experimentation in the early months of nutrition is incalculable and babies won’t willingly starve themselves. If this also has the advantage of reducing unhealthy weight gain and avoiding obesity, it’s a win-win for mums.
Dr. Colin Michie, Chair of the Nutrition Committee at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said:”The findings are particularly valuable and interesting as they suggest that altering weaning patterns can have a direct impact on a child’s food selection when they get older.
In other words, adjusting weaning could well help tackle the high rates of obesity currently found in UK. This could be a key element in the fight to prevent overweight children becoming obese adults. Baby-led weaning may not stop the child becoming a fussy eater though – a similar number of youngsters in both groups were deemed by their parents to be “picky” about the foods they would eat.