Scientific research to support the growing trend for New Zealand babies to feed themselves pieces of food from six months is lagging, according to an Otago University study.
Some mothers found benefits to babies skipping mushy solids and instead feeding themselves at the meal table, despite concerns from health professionals that they could choke on food.
Otago University human nutrition PhD student Sonya Cameron interviewed 20 Dunedin mothers who baby-led weaned from six months, as well as 31 health professionals. The research was published in the British Medical Journal Open.
"Parents are doing baby-led weaning quite happily and quite confidently. What is yet to catch up with that is the scientific research," Ms Cameron said.
The study found mothers who followed the baby-led weaning practice said it eliminated the meal time stress, enabled them to share family meals together and developed healthier eating habits by letting the baby explore a variety of foods themselves. They also felt it encouraged good motor skills.
Aucklander Nicky Davis started the Baby-Led Weaning NZ Facebook page in 2010. She said baby-led weaning was a growing trend and organisations like Plunket were becoming more open towards it.
But health professionals are wary about recommending the practice because of the lack of research available and choking and nutrition concerns.
Several of the mothers interviewed for the study had seen their children choking but said they were not serious incidents and the child was able to expel the food on their own.
Hamilton GP Mark Taylor said anything that made meal times easier was good, providing parents were careful about the types and size of food.
"Hard foods like apple are not so good," Dr Taylor said. "I would be wary of meat unless soft like mince. Size is tricky. They are more likely to choke on small but big may be harder to mush."
Dr Clare Wall, University of Auckland senior lecturer in infant and childhood nutrition, said it was "probably just a fad" and more research was needed.
Dr Wall said 6-month-old babies were at the developmental stages where they could start to feed themselves anyway.
Otago University is now making a larger study of 300 Dunedin mothers and babies looking at whether the benefits and concerns around baby-led weaning were real and required health professionals to have more training.
Pureed food off the menu after dinner table success
Mother-of-two Nicky Gill is counting down the weeks until her daughter Greta can join the family around the dinner table.
Her 5-month-old will next month be supplementing breast milk with whole pieces of vegetables such as broccoli stalks and finger-sized bits of kumara straight from the plate.
Her older brother Toby, 33 months old, was baby-led weaned, and Mrs Gill said she wouldn't even consider feeding Greta pureed food this time around.
When Toby was 4 months old she started feeling daunted about feeding him because he was so independent, she said.
When she stumbled across the idea of baby-led weaning on the internet, she thought it would be the perfect solution.
Mrs Gill admitted her family probably thought she was crazy, but once they saw Toby at dinner times, they couldn't stop bragging about what a good eater he was.
"From quite early on after those first few weeks he just ate what we ate or sort of a simplified version of it. If we were having meat and vegetables, he would have meat and vegetables."
The key was cutting it into finger-sized chunks, she said. "Even with steak, he couldn't eat it, he couldn't chew it or swallow it but he would gum it and get the goodness out of it.
"He did used to gag on his food quite a lot to begin with but I had read the Baby-led Weaning book by Gill Rapley and I knew that it was natural. He was making that noise like he was trying to bring it back and they say sit on your hands for 10 seconds and let him work it out and he always did."
She soon learnt the gagging sound was a natural way of the baby learning how to eat, and Toby was now a good eater who never made a fuss at meal times.