Parents are increasingly turning their noses up at spoon-feeding their babies, based on "baby-led weaning" advice from friends, books and the internet.
Baby-led weaning involves babies feeding themselves pieces of soft fruit, vegetables and possibly meat from the age of about 6 months.
But healthcare professionals are wary of the new trend, which they say poses a higher risk of choking, iron deficiency and inadequate energy intake, an Otago University study has found.
The Health Ministry recommends babies be introduced to solids from 6 months, starting with pureed food before moving on to mashed and finger foods as they grow.
Baby-led weaning skips the puree and mash stage.
Greymouth mother Megan Kelly turned to baby-led weaning when her first child, Tom, now 6, refused to eat solids off a spoon.
"It's a lazy parent's dream," she said. "You're not sitting there trying to shovel food in their face."
Though it was messy, she continued down the same path with her second child, Arlo, now 2.
"They just ate whatever we had really. There's some things that I stayed away from - apple and raw carrot."
Otago University human nutrition PhD student Sonya Cameron interviewed 20 Dunedin mothers who had practised baby-led weaning and 31 healthcare professionals, such as GPs, WellChild nurses, midwives and dietitians.
All agreed that baby-led weaning can foster shared family meals, reduce mealtime battles and promote healthier eating patterns, as babies stop eating when they are full.
Though several mothers said their babies had choked, mostly after eating raw apple, they all believed it was more convenient and less stressful than the recommended spoon-feeding approach.
The mothers had gleaned information from friends, books or the internet and many felt intuitively that it was the best way to feed their babies, while the health professionals said there was scare evidence about the practice and that was why they did not recommend it.
The results of the study were published in The British Medical Journal yesterday.
Ms Cameron said Britain was increasingly becoming more open to baby-led weaning, with its Health Department including some hand-held foods in the latest infant-feeding recommendations.
The trend took off in 2003 when British former midwife Jill Rapley published a book on it.
Ms Cameron is recruiting 300 mothers with young babies for a larger study to address the scarcity of information worldwide on the best way to practise baby-led weaning.
Wellington mum Kirsten Macdonald decided to let her 10-month-old daughter Ella feed herself even though her Plunket nurse "strongly discouraged" it.
"They felt that, because she was small, she needed to start solids at 5 months and she needed to have pureed food to bulk up a bit."
Mrs Macdonald ignored the advice and says: "When I went back to Plunket a few months later, they were very pleased with her weight gain and it was all fine."
Ella is spoon-fed foods such as porridge and yoghurt, but everything else she eats with her hands during meal-times with her parents. "We eat and she eats. She doesn't have a special meal first by herself and then watch us eat or go to bed."
She says many of her friends use baby-led weaning or some form of it.
"I don't know if it's right or wrong, or bad or good, but it seems to work. I did like that it would build up her motor skills and hand-eye co-ordination."
Mrs Macdonald also likes the theory that babies eat what they need, instead of being forced to eat spoonfuls of mush. There is a downside, though.
"It's messy . . . if she doesn't want to eat what she's been given, she picks it up and throws it off the table."
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