Modern mothers who shun traditional routine and feed their babies on demand could be helping to prevent obesity in later life.
Research suggests that giving newborns food whenever they want could keep their appetite and weight in check as they grow up.
By contrast, the established way, beloved of grandmothers, of a strict schedule in which babies are fed only every four hours, may be fuelling the obesity epidemic.
Experts say babies are born with a sense of how much food they need – and naturally stop eating when they are full. Giving them food at set times, when they may not be hungry, could over-ride this and lead to them piling on the pounds when they get older.
The finding will irritate those who believe babies benefit from a routine – and giving into their every whim will make them spoilt.
But it will delight new mothers who favour feeding on demand, believing the frequent contact helps them bond with their child.
Lynne Daniels, a professor of nutrition at Queensland University of Technology, Australia, studied almost 300 babies and their mothers.
She found that babies who were fed on demand, or ‘responsively’, were lighter at 14 months than others, the European Congress on Obesity in Istanbul heard.
This is important because chubby babies are more likely to suffer weight problems in later life, putting them at higher risk of health problems from heart disease to diabetes and various cancers.
The professor said: ‘If the mother is responsive, she is responding to the child’s cues of hunger and not over-riding them.
‘Whereas, if a mother feeds in schedule, she decides whether or not he is hungry and is more likely to make the child finish the bottle.’ She added that older children should have more of a routine. But they should still not be forced to eat more than they want and should not be made to finish what is on their plate.
Former midwife Clare Byam-Cook said the key thing is that babies are happy rather than hungry, and she defended routines.
‘A lot of the mothers who feed totally on demand are the ones whose babies are still waking at night at six months and ten months and so on. And that can cause problems for the marriage and the child’s wellbeing.
‘I would say babies on a routine do very well, as long as the routine is not utterly inflexible.’