(CNN)The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends introducing babies to solid foods when they are between 4 and 6 months of age.
One approach to eating, called baby-led weaning, is all about letting babies feed themselves once they’re ready for more than the breast or bottle. In other words, don’t spoon-feed babies the usual purees — instead, hand them a soft asparagus spear or a banana.
But is it safe to give gagging-prone infants food in this way?
A new New Zealand study found that baby-led weaning did not cause more choking than traditional spoon-feeding. Still, the researchers discovered that both styles led to unsafe accidents.
“It is essential that parents are taught how to deal with unavoidable choking episodes,” the authors wrote in a study published in the journal Pediatrics on Monday.
The original Baby-Led Introduction to SolidS (BLISS) study, which was published in November and involved 184 families in New Zealand, initially looked at whether baby-led weaning could serve as a suitable obesity-prevention initiative. The University of Otago study, which was funded by a baby formula manufacturer and an Australian meat and livestock industry group, tracked not only food and obesity-related data but also the number of choking incidents.
Among the serious choking incidents, only a quarter involved foods highest on the choking risk list. Mostly, infants choked when feeding themselves whole foods — and this happened in both groups.
Dr. Sarah Murphy, an assistant professor at WWAMI School of Medicine at the University of Alaska, found some of the results to be “shocking.” Though the study authors took care to educate participants about high-risk foods, Murphy noted, “parents weren’t following this advice, and over half of the children were offered ‘high-risk’ foods at least once per day by 7 months.”
There was another lesson to be learned from the study.
“Most surprising was only 23% of the choking episodes were from foods deemed a ‘high choking hazard,’ ” said Murphy, who was not involved in the study. “This makes me think that we humans are actually pretty good about protecting our airways.”
True choking, in which the airway is blocked and emergency action is required, is extremely rare, observed Rapley and Murkett, while “the occasional brief bout of coughing while eating is a normal and unremarkable event, occurring frequently in individuals of all ages.” That means adults, too.
“The fact that the authors found that, in half the cases, the infant resolved the ‘choking’ issue himself suggests that a large proportion of these were not true choking episodes,” Rapley said.
Despite this criticism, she still believes the study is a “great contribution” to the existing scientific investigations of weaning, though “more research is vital so that parents can be given accurate safety information.”