Baby-led weaning, or getting your infant to eat finger food, could hold the cure for childhood obesity.
Otago university researcher Rachael Taylor has co-led a two-year trial to see if letting infants feed themselves helps them self-regulate their energy intake.
If it does, baby-led weaning could help prevent obesity, the problem currently plaguing one-third of Kiwi kids aged 2 to 4. Around double the number of the previous generation.
Taylor suggests childhood obesity has to do with diet, physical activity and perhaps influence on epigenetics, which are changes in the way genes express themselves shaped by the environment.
The Baby-led Introduction to Solids project involved 206 infants, with half in a control group. It finished early this year and researchers will publish their final results towards the end of the year.
Taylor explains that infants don't have the dexterity to use a spoon, so are given "chunks" of food. Doing so allows the child to control their portion size. But researchers will be looking carefully at the quality of finger food that is fed to the children.
"The belief is that they'll keep better energy regulation, they'll eat better to their appetite."
Taylor said parents were concerned that babies would be more likely to choke on solid bits of food. But the research found that one-third of babies in both groups choked.
"They're choking on things like milk that you don't anticipate.
"Always supervise your children when they're eating so you can intervene if required."
Child health expert Dr Julie Bhosale said lots of mums have come to her complaining their child is bloated, vomiting, constipated or has diarrhea. The cause in many of these situations is feeding children too early or with the wrong type of food she said.
Bhosale endorses the World Health Organisation's recommendation to start babies on solids at six months. But what you start your child on can be just as important as when.
Children's digestive tracts don't fully develop until they're two years old and can't digest grains until they're 10-12 months old, Bhosale explained. Babies are born with enough iron to last them six months as breastmilk doesn't provide it. So it's important to introduce your child to foods high in iron like red meat and green leafy vegetables.
Feeding your child the wrong foods at the wrong time can give you baby an irritated gut, interfere with their sleep and exacerbate fussy eating, Bhosale said.
"Once the gut is irritated it can take a really long time to heal.
"For parents starting their kids off at four months on baby rice there is going to be some impact.
"I'm a really big fan of taking your time, there's no rush for it."
Your baby needs to have the core strength to sit and hold up their head before they're ready to eat. Bhosale said a sign they're not ready is if they still have the reflex to push all the food out of their mouth with their tongue. To make sure your baby is strong enough to eat, make sure they get lots of tummy time.
"Because a lot of babies are carried and not given lots of floor time I'm seeing this being delayed."
Bhosale said baby-led weaning is an old philosophy that's experiencing a renaissance. It means to eat meals with your child on your lap and give them bits from your plate. However you should still make purees to complement this.
"Let the baby choose what they want to eat.
"It's important for infants to taste and explore but you just don't rely on baby-led weaning because you can't put a raw carrot stick in front of them and expect them to eat that because they can't. They are going to need some pureed food."
Another aspect to be aware of is that what you first feed your child will influence the way their taste buds develop. Bhosale said she finds a lot of problems with fussy children can be traced back to what they were fed as infants.
"If you give an infant fruit they're not going to want a pumpkin and spinach meal
Bhosale advises parents to create a calm, fun environment when feeding their infant. The more relaxed the baby is, the more easily they'll take to new foods.
"If they're not sleeping well they're not going to feed properly and vice versa. It just becomes a big cycle.
• Bhosale begins her Starting Solid tour with baby sleep consultant Dorothy Waide on October 1 in Auckland, with shows in Tauranga and Wellington on October 15 and November 5.
Five starting solid recipes
• Country chicken
Take one cup of chopped butternut pumpkin and half a medium-sized potato. Chop, steam and blend together with one chicken drumstick.
• Sunday roast puree
Blend roast lamb, carrots and peas together.
• High iron vegetarian puree
Blend half a cup of chickpeas and one handful of spinach with half a cup of chopped and steamed pumpkin.
• Easy eggplant
Roast two eggplants, one chopped onion and three cloves of garlic with one teaspoon of cumin. Remove the skin from the eggplant and blend with other ingredients.
• Fish delight
Blend baked salmon with steamed kumara and carrot into a puree.