When I started implementing baby-led weaning with my children, I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t just jumping on the bandwagon of yet another passing fad that would somehow turn out to be detrimental in the long run. It seems that every five minutes new research comes out that influences whole movements in childcare, only to be turned upside down a few months later with research that proves the contrary.
I made sure to do my research and this is what I discovered:
Baby-led weaning is not just a fad. This weaning method seems to have emerged around 2001 and is still widely used. It has been tried and tested numerous times and 20 years of evidence has accumulated to prove its many benefits.
Many people seem to cite the book Baby-led Weaning: Helping Your Baby to Love Good Food by Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett as the catalyst that gained the movement its mass following when the book was first published in 2008. The weaning method, however, actually seems to have emerged around 2001.
While this trend certainly seems to have staying power, the proof is in the pudding:
How has Baby-Led Weaning Proven Itself Over Time?
While many parents believe that the baby-led weaning approach is the best way to wean your baby, what does the science actually say about this method and what evidence exists to support it?
Below we explore the common perceptions held by parents who have utilised the baby-led weaning approach and compare them to what scientific studies and the opinions of highly qualified specialists have had to say.
Does Baby-Led Weaning Really Result in Better Self-Regulation?
Parents who have followed the baby-led weaning approach and experts in this method believe that it promotes good appetite control. They believe that self-feeding teaches babies to understand their own hunger and satiation cues and strengthens their abilities to self-regulate.
The theory is that baby-led weaning allows the child to explore the taste and the textures of different foods on their own. Babies are given the opportunity to determine what they eat, how much they eat and when they are full.
With spoon-feeding, parents are often inclined to squeeze in a few more mouthfuls when the child is already full or finish whatever’s in the bowl, repeatedly teaching their children to ignore their own satiation cues and setting them up for poor eating habits later on in life.
Science agrees. According to one study conducted by the National Centre for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), toddlers between the ages of 18 – 24 months, who had been weaned through the baby-led weaning approach, exhibited better appetite control than those who had been spoon-fed. Self-fed babies would respond more to the feeling of satiation than the presence of food, while spoon-fed babies would respond to the presence of food more than the feeling of satiation.
Are Babies Weaned Through the Baby-Led Weaning Approach Really Less Likely to be Overweight?
Many parents and baby-led weaning experts believe that due to better self-regulation, babies weaned through the baby-led weaning approach are less likely to be overweight.
The International Association for the Study of Obesity did a research study on the role of the weaning style on child satiety‐responsiveness. The results showed that toddlers at 18–24 months of age who were weaned by spoon-feeding were significantly heavier than those who were fed through baby-led weaning. Factors such as birth weight, maternal weight and breastfeeding duration were also taken into account.
Of those who were weaned through baby-led weaning, 86.5% were of normal weight and only 8.1% were overweight. In comparison, of the spoon-fed babies, only 78.3% were of normal weight with 19.2 % overweight (more than twice that of BLW babies).
The evidence proves that spoon-feeding may result in routinely over-eating, which could cause a higher chance of obesity.
Does Baby-Led Weaning Really Reduce Fussiness?
Parents who use the baby-led weaning approach believe it enables babies to explore different tastes and textures on their own and encourages kids to become more adventurous eaters.
Another study on the differences in parental feeding styles and practices and toddler eating behaviour suggests that this is in fact not true. Their results imply that the weaning method makes very little difference to how fussy the child will become. It suggests that genetic background, past experiences with food and parental interaction are greater factors in determining a child’s aversions to different foods than the weaning method.
Physician Dr Wendi Carlton, however, disagrees. She says that by allowing babies to touch, feel, smell, and explore different textures, some kids are less likely to have texture aversions later on in life.
Does Baby-Led Weaning Really Decrease Your Child’s Chance of Developing Food Allergies Later on in Life?
BLW parents believe that finger foods are more likely to contain allergens than purees and the sooner you expose children to allergens the less likely they are to develop allergies later on in life.
According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAAI), if a child is introduced to a substance between the age of 4 – 6 months, they are less likely to develop an allergy to it later on in life.
However, there is nothing to say that allergens can only be introduced via finger foods. In fact, as both peanuts and peanut butter are choking hazards, it’s best to introduce them to your child in a watered-down puree or liquid form.
If Clear Evidence Exists to Support the Baby-Led Weaning Method, Why Don’t All Doctors Promote it?
While many paediatricians, dieticians and medical experts see the benefits of baby-led weaning and promote it, it’s also true that not all do. The most common concerns they have with the baby-led weaning method is the likelihood of choking and the adequacy of the nutrient content.
Is Baby-Led Weaning Really More Likely to Cause Gagging and Choking?
Doctors are often reluctant to encourage baby-led weaning out of concern that babies may not have the chewing skills to chew finger foods and could choke.
While we acknowledge that some gagging is part of the process, choking should not be and certain foods should not be offered to your baby in order to prevent this.
Physician Dr Wendi Carlton, says that according to studies, while baby-led weaning may cause more gagging at first, by eight months of age this is no longer the case. Even babies that are spoon-fed are likely to gag at some point in the weaning process.
Does Baby-Led Weaning Really Provide a Baby with an Insufficient Nutrient Intake?
An adequate nutrient intake is essential for your baby to achieve optimal development in the first year of their life. While breast milk provides sufficient nutrients for most healthy babies up to six months of age, after this time complementary foods should be introduced to meet the babies’ expanding nutrient requirements.
Many paediatricians, sceptical of the low iron content of most soft finger foods, recommend iron-fortified baby cereals to help babies consume enough iron. As this falls into the category of pureed foods or spoon-feeding, many parents who feel that baby-led weaning should consist of only soft finger foods and not purees are reluctant to introduce this to their children.
(While we at Baby-Led Weaning Tribe do recommend the introduction of soft finger foods to your baby from the time that they are ready to be weaned, we don’t believe that you can’t provide your baby with pureed foods in addition to this.)
While not enough research has been conducted on the subject, one research study by the NCBI found that self-feeding babies had higher nutrient intakes at 9–11 months of age than those who were spoon-fed. Not enough information is currently available on the nutrient intakes of children in other phases of the weaning period but the concerns of inadequate nutrition do seem to be unfounded.
It should also be noted that breast milk will provide your baby with the majority of their nutrient intake until they are at least 8 months of age and should be used to supplement their diet until they are 12 months of age. If you are concerned that your baby is not consuming enough iron, we at the Baby Led Weaning Tribe encourage using the combined method.
Summing it Up
The NCBI seems to have conducted the most comprehensive research study on baby-led weaning to date. While they acknowledge that more research is needed to understand the full effect of baby-led weaning in more detail in a wider range of contexts, they do also acknowledge the evidence of many positive outcomes, especially with regards to positive eating behaviours and weight gain.
With so much documented evidence of the benefits of baby-led weaning, it seems that this ‘fad’ is here to stay.