Objective The impact of different weaning methods on food preferences and body mass index (BMI) in early childhood is not known. Here, we examine if weaning method—baby-led weaning versus traditional spoon feeding—influences food preferences and health-related outcomes.
Design, setting and participants Parents (n=155) recruited through the Nottingham Toddler laboratory and relevant internet sites completed a questionnaire concerning (1) infant feeding and weaning style (baby-led=92, spoon-fed=63, age range 20–78 months), (2) their child's preference for 151 foods (analysed by common food categories, eg, carbohydrates, proteins, dairy) and (3) 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.
Main outcome measures The primary outcome measures were food preferences, exposure and weaning style. The secondary outcome measures were BMI and picky eating.
Results Compared to the spoon-fed group, the baby-led group demonstrated (1) significantly increased liking for carbohydrates (no other differences in preference were found) and (2) carbohydrates to be 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 (1) underweight in the baby-led group and (2) obesity in the spoon-fed group. No difference in picky eating was found between the two weaning groups.
Conclusions Weaning style impacts on food preferences and health in early childhood. Our results suggest that infants weaned through the baby-led approach learn to regulate their food intake in a manner, which leads to a lower BMI and a preference for healthy foods like carbohydrates. This has implications for combating the well-documented rise of obesity in contemporary societies.
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To cite: Townsend E, Pitchford NJ. 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
Funding The study was funded by a School of Psychology (University of Nottingham) pump-priming grant. The researchers are independent of the funders. Our funders had no role in the design and conduct of the study; collection, management, analysis and interpretation of the data and preparation, review or approval of the manuscript. Within the last 5 years, ET and NP have received co-funding from Nutricia/Danone to support an ESRC CASE PhD studentship.
Competing interests Within the last five years ET and NP have received co-funding from Nutricia/Danone to support an ESRC CASE PhD studentship.
Ethics approval The study was approved by University of Nottingham Psychology Ethics Board.
Contributors ET and NP designed the study and secured the funding for it. ET collected and analysed the data and wrote the paper. NP contributed to the analysis and wrote the paper. ET is the guarantor for the study, and both authors had full access to all the data in the study and take responsibility for the integrity of the data and the accuracy of the data analysis.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.
Data sharing statement Study data may be obtained from the first author. Even though consent for data sharing was not obtained the data are anonymous and the risk of identification is low.