As a new parent, you've done your homework and you know what age is optimal to begin weaning your baby off the breast or bottle. While you may know a lot about when to start your tiny eater on solids for the first time, you probably haven't given much thought to how best to do it. Most likely you'll opt for the old standard of spoon-feeding. After all, the important thing's to get your child to eat enough—method doesn't matter. Or does it?

It just might. A recent study by Ellen Townsend and Nicola Pitchford of the University of Nottingham's School of Psychology suggests that how you start solids can affect your child's health and weight later in life. Dr. Townsend surveyed a group of parents and asked them what their habits were as they introduced their infants to solid foods. The parents were divided into two main groups according to their style of weaning—some favored "baby-led" feeding, and others preferred parent controlled spoon-feeding.

"The results of this preliminary study are encouraging," Dr. Townsend says. "Children who had been weaned using a baby-led approach tended to have a lower BMI and liked carbohydrates (the building blocks of a healthy diet) more than children who were spoon fed."

These results suggest that baby-led weaning might promote preferences for healthier food starting in infancy—and that having an early bias towards these foods might help protect against childhood obesity.

There's no formal definition of baby-led weaning, but Dr. Townsend defines it in her study as "infant self-feeding [whereby] from the introduction of solid foods at 6 months you hand control of eating over to your child, either with suitable finger foods or foods on a pre-loaded spoon."

If you aren't already letting your young kid take the lead at mealtime, it can be hard to transition from tradition and tackle a new way of nurturing her. However, the potential benefits of baby-led weaning should encourage you to start with these simple tactics:

  • First feedings. Guidelines suggest that 4-6 months is the right time to start weaning, but babies reach developmental milestones at different times. Make sure that your baby is physically ready to begin solids before you try baby-led feedings. If she can she sit up and hold her head steady, and has the hand-eye coördination to pick up food and bring it to her mouth, she's ready to try easy to manage foods like a piece of pancake or a fistful of soft, ripe banana. Always supervise your little one as she begins to explore eating on her own.
  • Watch for interest. If your baby's showing an interest in the potato on your plate, or reaches her tiny fingers toward family food, she's probably ready for baby-led feeding. Indulge her interest in solid foods, even if all she wants to do is play with those strands of spaghetti. Sucking on bite-sized bits, tasting new foods and chewing without swallowing are all small steps on the way to learning how to feed independently.
  • Start with solids—really! One of the rallying cries of the baby-led weaning movement is "no mush, no mash"—and especially no overly-sweetened jar offerings, or interesting dish combinations that you'd turn your nose up at. Be sensible and don't hand your infant anything that she can't handle, but don't mash everything that you put in from of her. As your baby learns to feed herself, hard foods like carrot sticks are OK, but make sure that the pieces she picks up are large enough to suck on and not swallow. Small pieces of hard fruits or vegetables might present a choking hazard.
  • Allow autonomy. Offer your baby a variety of healthy foods like complex carbs (cereals), fruits and veggies and let her choose for herself. Parents often fear that kids will beeline for the sweets and pizza if they're allowed to decide for themselves, but Townsend's research found a preference for sweeter, less nutritious foods among the spoon-fed group—not the baby-led group.
  • Encourage by example. Don't isolate your baby during feeding—instead, have her join in during family mealtimes. Offer her what you're having so she doesn't feel second class. Most adult meals have something that's OK for tiny tummies. Small, soft pieces of bread or roll, steamed veggies or pieces of pasta are all fine. Feeding yourself while feeding your baby can be hard on new parents. Make it easier by taking turns. One parent can eat dinner as the other feeds the baby, and then switch. Not only will your little epicure take in proper eating practices from watching you nosh, she'll also learn about different textures and tastes of food while bonding with loved ones.
  • Take your time. First feedings require lots of patience, so set aside sufficient time for meals and try to relax as your baby learns to master the art of self-feeding. Let her play with, explore and concentrate on the dishes in front of her.

Baby-led weaning's not an "all-or-nothing" approach. If most of the food ends up on the floor, continue to supplement feedings with breastmilk or formula. If your budding foodie has trouble picking up pieces of food or chewing, try loading a little spoon with something soft and sticky (such as oatmeal) and letting her pick it up.

Trying a baby-centered approach to feeding is scary, but the rewards might just make it worth the effort. So the next time you find your hand reaching for the baby spoon, fight the urge and remind yourself—maybe, when it comes to feeding, baby really does know best.