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 Feb 6;2(1):e000298. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2011-000298. Print 2012.


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.