The first study into what infants eat when they follow baby-led weaning has delivered surprising findings.
Baby-led weaning (BLW), in which parents allow infants from around 6 months of age to feed themselves with finger foods, preferably during family meals, is becoming an increasingly popular alternative to spoon-feeding.
"We found that infants following BLW were more likely to be exclusively breastfed to 6 months of age, and to wait until then to start solids, which is great news," said study leader Dr Anne-Louise Heath, of the University of Otago.
They were also more likely to eat meals with their family, which should have long-term benefits as they grow. But they were also eating more fat and had lower intakes than spoon-fed babies of iron, zinc and vitamin B12.
The Ministry of Health doesn't recommend baby-led weaning, stating that more research is needed.
Its advice is to spoon-feed pureed foods when the baby is ready, typically around 6 months, then moving to mashed and chopped foods over the next few months.
Finger foods can be offered from 7-8 months when baby could pick them up, bring them to their mouth and chew them, the Ministry says.
Supporters of BLW suggest it allows the child to be in control of how much they eat as they were when they were breast or formula feeding.
But the ministry, and some healthcare professionals, have been concerned that this may lead to poorer nutrition and more choking in these infants.
Dr Heath and colleagues compared dietary intake and feeding behaviour in 51 age-matched and sex-matched infants between 6 and 8 months of age.
Eighteen were following full BLW, seven partial BLW and 26 were spoon-fed.
They found that the BLW infants had similar energy intakes to those who were spoon-fed, but appeared to have higher intakes of total fat, saturated fat, and fat as a percentage of energy.
"In contrast, average intakes of iron, zinc, and vitamin B12 were lower," Dr Heath said.
In the study, published in the international journal BMJ Open, the researchers wrote they "observed that a worryingly high number of parents in all three groups were offering foods thought to pose a choking risk".
For the BLW group the most commonly consumed choking-risk foods were raw vegetables, raw apple and dried fruit. For the spoon-fed group it was rusks, small pieces of meat, crackers and corn kernels.
Further research in a larger group of infants was needed to confirm the study's overall findings, she said.
"In the meantime, it would be wise for families following BLW to offer their infants a range of foods that are rich in iron, zinc and vitamin B12.
"All parents should also be given advice on how to prepare foods in such a way that choking risk is minimised.
"This involves ensuring safe shapes and textures are offered."