At least 40% of moms are feeding their infants solid foods far too early, and that may lead to problems for their children later in life, according a new study published in the medical journal Pediatrics.

Researchers wanted to know how many babies were being fed solid foods (including cereal and baby food) sooner than recommended, whether breastfeeding or formula feeding made a difference, and why solids were being introduced early.

Current Recommendations for Infant Feeding and Introducing Solid Food

When the study began in 2005, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which also publishes the journal Pediatrics, recommended introducing solid foods when babies were between 4 and 6 months old.

In 2012, the AAP changed their recommendations, stating babies shouldn't eat solid food until they are about 6 months old. Moms are recommended to exclusively breastfeed their babies until they are about 6 months old, so babies can reap all the benefits of mother's milk including extra immune protection and possible protection for future chronic illnesses like obesity and type II diabetes.

Study and Findings

As part of the two-year study, 1,334 mothers filed out monthly questionnaires about what their babies ate during the last week. Scientists then analyzed the data reported by the mothers to determine at which age babies were being fed solid food.

They found 539 moms, or 40% of moms, gave their babies solid food early. Previous studies had put that estimate at 19% and 29%. Researchers believe based on this study, they may actually be underestimating how many moms introduce solids early because the study was more likely to have older, more educated and higher income moms participating. According to the study, mothers of lower socioeconomic status are at a higher risk of early solid food introduction.

Among the 539 moms who did introduce solids early, nearly 1 in 10 gave their babies solids before they were 4 weeks old.

Researchers found formula-fed infants were about twice as likely to be introduced to solids early, compared to only breastfed babies.

Moms were also given 12 reasons to choose from to explain why they introduced solid food early. Among the top answers:
– 90% of moms said they thought their baby was old enough to start eating solids.
– 71% said their baby seemed hungry a lot of the time.
– 55% believed their doctor or another health care professional said their baby should start eating solids.

Risks With Early Introduction

Giving your baby solid food too soon has been linked to a higher risk of obesity and diabetes, according to the study. Other research has also shown starting infants on solids before 4 months can lead to allergies and eczema.

There's a lack of awareness of what the recommendations are, and babies are not developmentally ready for solid food before they are 4 months old.

Some of these moms are getting information about when to feed their babies solids from generations (ex. grandparents, nurses, and friends) who may have started their babies on solids at an earlier age.

Developmental Signs of Readiness for Solid Food

Every baby develops at a slightly different pace, but there are some signs to look for to help parents figure out if their child is ready for solids:
– Is the baby sitting up? Can he hold her head up?

– Does your baby open his mouth when food comes his way?

– Is he big enough? (Babies typically double their birth weight by 4 months)

– Can he take food off the spoon and actually swallow it?

– Can he keep the food in his mouth without his tongue thrusting the food out?

Take-home Message

Parents need clear and accurate guidance on when to introduce solid food to their babies, and pediatricians and health care professionals need to support them by explaining to the parents that crying doesn't always mean the baby is hungry - he could also be wet, sick or just needs soothing.

In Health and Happiness,

Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Healthy Goods

Reference:

1. Clayton HB et al. Prevalence and Reasons for Introducing Infants Early to Solid Foods: Variations by Milk Feeding Type. Pediatrics Vol. 131 No. 4 April 1, 2013:e1108-e1114.

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