This article appeared in a Science newsletter on April 2nd2019. We thought it might be of interest as so many children these days present as ‘picky’ eaters who are difficult to feed.
It was written by Sophia Komninou, The Conversation
When it comes to avoiding picky eating and meal time tantrums, parents are usually ready to try any method that promises their child will become a better and less fussy eater. This is in part why methods of giving solid food to infants have received a lot of attention in the last few years. Some think that the way babies are introduced to solids can change their attitudes to food into childhood or even for life.
The most common method used to give babies their first solids has long been to offer a puree or mash using a spoon. This helps parents make sure their babies receive adequate energy and nutrients for their development – something many are often anxious over.
More recently, however, baby-led weaning has gained popularity – and divided parents. This method sees babies selecting finger foods – such as carrot sticks, broccoli trees or other pieces of whole, baby-fist size pieces of food – and feedingthemselves. While there have been unsubstantiated claims that this method can improve a baby’s dexterity and confidence, research has associated baby-led weaning with their ability to recognise when they are full and being less fussy with their food. This makes it an appealing choice for some parents.
However, as with most things baby-related, the reality is that many parents don’t use just one method of feeding. It changes depending on the time, day or situation they are in. Which is why, for our recently published study, we wanted to compare how different styles of feeding affects a baby’s eating habits and attitudes to food.
Is baby-led weaning better?
We looked at four different categories of toddlers, whose parents introduced them to solids using either: solely baby-led weaning, mostly baby-led weaning with occasional spoon feeding, mostly spoon feeding with occasional finger foods, or just spoon feeding. We asked the parents questions about their feeding strategies and eating behaviours of their toddlers, like fussiness and food enjoyment.
Usually, in a statistical analysis, we look at whether there is a difference between groups. But what this doesn’t tell us is how big the difference actually is. To solve this problem, we looked at the size of the difference between the groups (what we call the effect size). It helps us understand whether the difference actually matters.
We found that the magnitude of difference in a toddler’s fussiness and food enjoyment is minimal across the four groups. This means that baby-led weaning, spoon-feeding or anything in between might not actually be the solution to future mealtime battlegrounds some parents hope it will be. That may seem to be in contrast with what the research shows so far, but it doesn’t negate those findings. Babies will be less picky about their food if they are fed using baby-led weaning as opposed to any of the other types of feeding, it’s just not by that much.
Socio-economics at play
When looking at the strategies parents use to feed their children, our study did show that those who follow baby-led weaning are less likely to use food as a reward or encouragement, and have less control on eating overall. This helps their toddlers learn to make eating decisions for themselves based on whether they are hungry or full. These parents are also more likely to breastfeed for longer, introduce solids after six months and eat more frequently with their toddlers.
However, the key difference here is not that the children were fed using baby-led weaning but instead the type of families who usually follow it. Our findings show that these parents are usually of a higher socio-economic status and more educated, which makes them more likely to follow a distinctly different parenting style and be able to afford to spend more time and money doing so.
Overall, our results suggest that the way a baby is introduced to solids will make very little difference to how fussy they will become, or how much they will enjoy food. It is important to remember that how children eat depend on a lot of factors, including their genetic background, their past experiences with food and their interaction with their parents.
Research findings are important when communicating complementary feeding advice to new parents, but headlines and quoted study results can often be misleading. So remember that when reports of research say there is a difference between one method over another, it’s not the whole story. The size of this difference – something that is not often communicated – matters too. The most important thing that parents can do is to try their best and introduce solids in a way that is more appropriate for their family, rather than stressing about a specific method, as research suggests might make a only a very small difference.
In last week’s post, I wrote that a baby’s brain is very undeveloped at birth, owing to the relatively small size of a newborn’s head. In fact, the newly born child has all the brain cells (neurons) he will ever need but they aren’t able to communicate with each other very efficiently.
One of the most important developmental stages in these early days is for the infant to do what is necessary for these neurons to connect to each other. Eventually, he’ll end up with neural networks that are needed for learning and living. These networks provide us with the ability to learn language, interpret sound and vision, control emotions, think and remember. The quality of the brain cells themselves and the way they connect to each other will determine whether that individual grows up with an average or a really smart brain.
Some of this will depend on the child’s genes but a great deal will depend on the environment you provide and in which the child will develop. It’s not true that clever parents will automatically have clever children. Academic success and intelligence are hugely reliant on a growing environment that is characterized by lots of love, little stress, mental stimulation and a good diet.
Mental stimulation is not provided by mindless facts. Many children can learn to count, recite the alphabet, give correct answers to learned questions and so on, but these don’t indicate a good brain. Essentially, as Dr David Perlmutter points out in his book (see reference below), the goal of parent’s interactions with their young children should not be whatthe children learn but howthey learn it. Stay away from activities that dull their brains, deaden their senses and put them at risk for later learning difficulties.
It’s better for a developing brain to learn what letters and numbers represent rather than being able to spell or count. In order for this to happen, they need to learn their shapes and understand that letters and numbers are symbols that carry meaning according to their shapes.
It’s also important that the connections being made by the neurons are firmly cemented in place. For this to happen, children need repetition of incoming mental stimulation. Most seek this out automatically by insisting that parents reinforce learning. Most of us know how a child will demand the same story over and over again, or be happy to watch the same film again and again. This is a good example of how children learn and how they strengthen the connections in their neural networks.
Here’s one example of a brain-building activity given by Dr Perlmutter that will help the child to learn the meaning of numbers:
For a child beginning at around age 12 months: Find a puzzle containing pieces shaped from numbers 1 to 10. Fitting the numbers into their correct places allows the child to experience the ‘feel’ qualities of numbers, which helps to ingrain the picture of the number into their brains. You can enhance her experience by showing her what a particular number represents. For example, when she puts the number 2 into the correct place on the puzzle board, hand her two small balls and say “Two.” Every time she puts back another puzzle piece, add balls to her collection until the puzzle is completed. This paves the way for early recognition of the symbolic nature of numbers. This is far more beneficial than simply teaching the child to memorise counting from one to ten.
Acknowledgement is given to Dr David Perlmutter who wrote the informative book Raise a smarter child by kindergarten: Build a better brain and increase IQ up to 30 points.Available from Amazon books.
Some people use the terms ‘food allergy’ and ‘food intolerance’ as synonyms but this is incorrect. Some of the signs of food intolerance and allergy are similar but the difference between the two are very important. Eating a food to which you are intolerant can leave you feeling miserable. A true food allergy, however, could be life-threatening. Either way, a child whose body reacts negatively to something in her diet will find it more difficult to focus on schoolwork and do her best. It’s worth considering whether or not she has a food intolerance.
Let’s first consider the differences between the two conditions. If you’re allergic to a food, your immune system will consider the food as an enemy invader and defend the body with antibodies. These antibodies produce symptoms that can cover a range of conditions like hives, eczema, indigestion, nausea, diarrhea, excessive winds and vomiting. More severe symptoms are termed anaphylactic and may include difficulty breathing, dizziness or loss of consciousness. Without immediate treatment – an injection of adrenalin – anaphylactic can be fatal.
A food intolerance, on the other hand, doesn’t involve the immune system. It takes place in the digestive system and is usually due to an inability to properly break down a particular food. This could be due to enzyme deficiencies, sensitivity to food additives (colourants and flavourants) or reactions to naturally occurring chemicals in foods. The symptoms are sometimes vague and can include a combination of gastrointestinal problems such as bloating and wind, diarrhea, nausea and indigestion and aggravation of eczema and asthma. These symptoms often take long to emerge, often several hours or days so it is difficult to pinpoint what foods may be causing the symptoms. The symptoms too may take a couple of days to go away.
Almost any food can cause an intolerance but there are some types that occur more than others. Common culprits are dairy, gluten and foods that can lead to gas buildup, such as cabbage and beans. A specific type of intolerance can develop to the protein in wheat and other grains called gluten. This condition is called Coeliac disease.
The tricky thing about intolerances is that they are dose-dependent. This means that a certain amount of the offending substance has to be consumed before symptoms appear. Small quantities of the food may be handled by the body, unlike people with allergies, who must stay away from even the tiniest trace of the trigger food. Everyone is different, so the amount tolerated will vary from person to person.
If you suspect that your child has a food intolerance, you can try an elimination diet to decipher what food is causing problems. Keeping a food diary is useful because you need to be able to look back to see what might have been eaten a few days before.
What you need to remember is that while a food allergy will probably make itself conspicuous with the more severe symptoms, many food intolerances go unnoticed and ignored. Try to remember that these can negatively affect learning and behaviour – and if your child shows puzzling challenges, keep in mind that food might be the reason. Next week, we’ll list some behaviours that may indicate an intolerance to one or more foods.