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A definitive answer on whether ‘bird-feeding’ your baby is a good idea.

In this article, gastroenterologist Dr Vincent Ho explains premastication and what new mums need to know.

Firstly, what is premastication, or ‘bird-feeding’?

Premastication is a bird-like feeding method where the parent chews on solid food to break it down and then feeds that food directly to the baby from their mouth.

This practice has been around for a very long time, and is what our ancestors used to do to feed us as babies before the invention of pureed baby foods.

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Video via Mamamia

Even today, premastication is widely practised in many traditional cultures, and a common occurrence in some South American, African and Asian countries. One study found that just over one in four babies across eight cities in China are fed by premastication.

That said, when a lot of people think about premastication, an immediate “yuckiness” factor comes to mind.

Actor Alicia Silverstone posted a video in 2012 which showed her feeding her son Bear this way, and she copped a lot of criticism for it.

But is premastication really bad for your baby?

Let’s weigh up the pros and cons.

Critics point out that premastication was shown in one US study to have an increased rate of diarrhoea among 10-month-old infants. 

Some are concerned that infectious diseases like HIV or hepatitis B could be transmitted to the baby through premastication.

Understandably in the age of COVID-19 it’s natural to be anxious about the prospect of transmitting nasty microbes to your baby.

On the other hand, we know that the risk of transmitting serious infections like HIV through premastication is very low. 

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Saliva contains antimicrobial compounds that can help fight against bacterial and viral infections. 

There is concern that premastication may increase the risk of dental and mouth infections in babies, but in one study the transfer of saliva from mother to baby reduced the risk of dental caries in their children. This is believed to be largely down to the beneficial immune properties of saliva.

Diarrhoea is a risk, but there's actually more of a risk of your baby getting diarrhoea if they’re fed baby food from unwashed hands.

In an evolutionary sense, premastication may assist in providing more nutrition to a growing baby’s brain. Humans, unlike other primates, continue to have very rapid brain growth after birth and it’s thought that premastication is a good way to get foods high in omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients important for brain development to babies. 

I’m squeamish. Are there other options for me and my baby?

In my book The Healthy Baby Gut Guide, I write about how sucking on a baby’s dummy can help reduce the risk of allergy.

A study from Sweden found that cleaning a dummy by sucking it before giving it back to the baby considerably reduced the risk of childhood eczema and asthma. Scientists believe that this benefit in part comes from the mouth microbes contained in saliva.  

If you’d like to consider doing premastication for your baby, a common sense approach is really important. You should be in good health (don’t do it if you’re sick!), free from infections and have good dental and oral hygiene. 

For those squeamish at the thought of premastication but interested in the potential health benefits, I would suggest chewing on solid foods (especially when your baby has no teeth) and then feeding the chewed food to your baby via a spoon. That way they’re still getting the good benefits of saliva without the social “yuckiness” factor of having chewed food come directly from your mouth.

It’s also a good idea to clean your baby’s dummy with boiled water before sucking on it for a bit and giving it back to your baby.

For more tips and information, check out Dr Vincent Ho’s new book, The Healthy Baby Gut Guide, here.

Dr Vincent Ho is a clinical academic gastroenterologist and Senior Lecturer at the School of Medicine, University of Western Sydney. He is also a practising gastroenterologist. 

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