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It's the bane of many parents’, grandparents’ and caregivers’ lives: the post-meal clean-up courtesy of babies and toddlers.
Substances that were once identifiable as food products somehow find themselves smeared into sticky pulp on faces, hands, hair, legs, between toes, on clothing and toys, wedged into unreachable nooks and crannies of high chairs and tray tables — not to mention splashed liberally around surrounding floors, walls and furniture.
And why is it that youngsters who are so keen to revel in the mush almost unfailingly object loudly and strenuously to having said remains — which have somehow during the course of the mealtime metamorphosed into plaster — cajoled from their bodies and their encrusted clothing layers peeled off?
It’s not called feeding time at the zoo for nothing!
However, the verdict is in; it turns out that mess is actually best when it comes to getting babies in the mood for food.
According to University of Otago research, it appears babies who feed themselves as soon as they start eating solids (usually from about the age of 6 months) turn out to be less fussy eaters.
That might not be music to the ears of the adult clean-up crew, but the study — published in international journal Jama Pediatrics — shows the benefits to children (and adults in the long run) are considerable.
The main objective of the study was actually to determine whether letting infants feed themselves (instead of traditional spoon-feeding by another person) would reduce the risk of them becoming overweight.
It found no evidence that self-feeding made a noticeable difference in terms of body weight. Significantly, it also found no evidence that self-feeders did not eat enough food and could be underweight. (This should alleviate concerns for parents who think they should try and squeeze just one more spoonful into the mouths of their littlies.)
But the significant find is that babies who fed themselves from the age of 6 months had a better attitude towards food at 12 and 24 months and were less fussy about food than spoon-fed participants.
Fussy babies grow into fussy children who grow into fussy adults. This not only limits choice, and makes the job of providing interesting meals challenging for providers, it can have severe implications on health, for a balanced diet is crucial to provide the energy and nutrients a body requires.
Bad food habits can become entrenched for life and anything that can help break this cycle and make food a friend is welcome news.
So the message for parents and caregivers is be prepared to swallow the mess, give babies who are on solids some options at mealtimes and let them work their way through the food. Mealtimes might be messy and might be marathons but, chances are, the young ones are getting enough to satisfy their nutritional needs. When young children stop eating and start playing with their food, they’re probably full.
Of course, anyone concerned about their child’s eating habits or weight should always seek advice from a medical practitioner. There may be good reasons — such as undiagnosed allergies or health conditions — that a child chooses not to eat much, or only to eat certain things.
But the health benefits of self-feeding early appear significant. There will be social advantages, too. Easier mealtimes mean better opportunities for families to engage. Children who can eat well at home will not create the same anxieties when they are in day care, away on school trips or staying with friends or wider family. And, for adults, there is no doubt the range of social occasions that hinge around food will be easier if every second ingredient is not off the menu.