Little is known about how different methods of introducing solid food to babies may affect food preferences and body mass index (BMI). The authors examined whether two different styles — spoon feeding or self-feeding, also known as baby-led weaning — influenced food preferences and health-related outcomes.

A total of 155 parents recruited through the Nottingham Toddler Laboratory and relevant internet sites completed a questionnaire concerning infant feeding style and introduction of solid food (baby-led=92, spoon-fed=63, age range 20–78 months); their child's preference for 151 foods (analysed by common food categories, e.g. carbohydrates, proteins, dairy); and exposure (frequency of consumption). Food preference and exposure data were analysed using a case–controlled matched sample to account for the effect of age on food preference. All other analyses were conducted with the whole sample.

As no formal definition of baby-led weaning exists, parental self-report was used to generate different groups. To verify the veracity of self-reported feeding style, responses to items concerning feeding methods were interrogated. This confirmed that the baby-led group were more likely to have handled food from the introduction of solid foods, were given finger foods earlier and fewer had been spoon-fed with pureed foods at all.

Results showed that, in comparison to the spoon-fed group, the baby-led group demonstrated significantly increased liking for carbohydrates (no other differences in preference were found) and that carbohydrates were their most preferred foods (compared to sweet foods for the spoon-fed group). Preference and exposure ratings were not influenced by socially desirable responding or socioeconomic status, although an increased liking for vegetables was associated with higher social class. There was an increased incidence of underweight in the baby-led group and of obesity in the spoon-fed group. No difference in picky eating was found between the two groups.

The authors concluded that results suggested infants who were introduced to solid food through the baby-led approach learned to regulate their food intake in a manner which leads to a lower BMI and a preference for healthy foods like carbohydrates. The authors postulate that this “has implications for combating the well-documented rise of obesity in contemporary societies.”

Ellen Townsend, Nicola J Pitchford (2012) Baby knows best? The impact of weaning style on food preferences and body mass index in early childhood in a case–controlled sample. BMJ Open 2012;2:e000298 doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2011-000298