Is a baby-led weaning style related to motor and language development? Preliminary evidence from two cultures

Elsa Addessi, Claire Farrow, Charlotte Webber, Francesca Bellagamba, Flavia Chiarotti, Jacqueline Blissett, Amy T. Galloway, Laura Shapiro, Valentina Focaroli, Melania Paoletti, Giulia Pecora, Barbara Caravale, Corinna Gasparini and Serena Gastaldi

The complementary feeding period has lifelong consequences for the individual well-being. In many industrialized societies, the first solids that infants receive are puréed foods on a spoon – an approach known as “parent-led weaning”. In the last 15 years, there has been a rise in a “baby-led weaning” (BLW) approach to feeding solids, which is based on the infant independently eating finger foods, setting the pacem and amount eaten at the meal, and participating in family meals. Previous research showed that a BLW style seems related to lower food fussiness and better appetite regulation. However, its potential implications for other developmental domains have been largely overlooked. To fill this gap, we carried out two independent studies investigating the possible association between a BLW style and child development in the language and motor domains.

In the first study, a sample of 131 UK parents of children aged 8-24 months completed a questionnaire about their approach to complementary feeding, their current feeding practices, and the participation in family meals, and the MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventories to assess child language comprehension and production. The findings showed that eating finger foods unaided rather than pureed foods at the onset of complementary feeding was positively related to more advanced child language comprehension (r = .225, p < .05), and production (r = .219, p < .05); similarly, the participation in family meals was positively related to more advanced child language comprehension (r = .318, p < .01) and production (r = .225, p < .05). In a second study, a sample of 76 Italian mothers of 8-month-old infants completed the same questionnaires as in the first study and, in addition, the Developmental Profile 3, along with questions on the attainment of some developmental milestones. Findings indicated a weak tendency for the parents of the infants who reported crawling by 8 months of age to have more exposure to self-feeding than those infants who were not crawling by 8 months (t = -1.83, p = .068), and a significant relationship between the participation in family meals and higher scores in the cognitive (t = 2.36, p = 0.021) and communication scales of the Developmental Profile 3 (t = 2.02, p = 0.048), but no significant relationships with self-reported measures of language comprehension and production and gestures production. These data suggest, for the first time, an association between a baby-led weaning style and developmental domains beyond diet and eating behavior, which warrants future, targeted exploration.