Introducing a baby to solid foods early has changed throughout the years; indeed the guidelines have changed throughout the last century.
It seems that the recommendations for introducing babies to solid foods are continually changing. These changes and updates often cause quite a bit of confusion and frustration among parents who are looking to start their babies off with healthy eating.
Many parents look to their own parents and/or grandparents for advice and for these experiences to guide them. Often it is heard that “My Grandma fed my Mom rice cereal when she was just 2 weeks old and my Mom is alive and healthy” or “My Mom fed me cereal at 8 weeks old and I am fine”.
These sentiments, when considering the above, bring on the question of “Why should I wait to introduce my baby to solid foods?”.
Learn about optimal nutrition and delaying solid foods, the “open” gut, why 6 months of age may be a better age to start solids, why 12 months of age is the time to introduce anything, and learn about the various reasons why solids were introduced early in the past.
There is a “conflict” between the AAP Breastfeeding et al and the AAP Committee on Nutrition as regards starting solids. The Committee on Nutrition says babies may be started on solid foods “between 4 and 6 months” of age while the Breastfeeding Committee recommends waiting u ntil 6 months of age. The Committee on Nutrition does not recommend 4 months of age as the absolute starting age however.
“At approximately four-to-six months, you can begin adding solid foods. According to Dr. Frank Greer with the AAP Committee on Nutrition “Most babies are not ready for solids before this time, as they have not lost their tongue-thrust reflex at that age,”
If solids were introduced early in the past and babies grew up “fine”, why should I wait now?
As with any evolution, the evolution of medicine and the science of dietary nutrition and infant nutrition has taken quite some time. In the past, there was not a wealth of research to suggest that an infant’s gastrointestinal system was unable to properly utilize, absorb and process solid foods. Early introduction of solid foods that were not full of proper vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, robbed babies of crucial nutrients needed to sustain their rapidly developing systems.
While it maybe true that your Grandmother or your Mother was introduced to solid foods at 2 months or even 1 month old, and they grew up “fine”; it may also be possible that their nutritional status’ were less than optimal. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies were common in infants years ago as were illness and higher infant mortality rates. As science progressed, infant mortality rates began to drop as infants began receiving the proper, optimal nutrition for their growing bodies.
For example, The Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health notes the following:
“The health benefits of breastfeeding for babies and mothers have long been recognized and it is now globally recommended that it be continued exclusively for six months. Although there are few controlled trials to support this recommendation, the most important advantage is less morbidity [death] from gastrointestinal infection in developing countries. There is also evidence that respiratory tract infections and atopic dermatitis is reduced, and the maternal risk of breast cancer decreases, particularly with a longer duration of breastfeeding and a high parity. “
Introducing solid food “early” in the past
To point out a rather extreme analogy, We were once told that smoking was not bad for our health. Indeed, smoking was touted as being a cure for some ills. Another example, it was once thought that hugging your baby would create a spoiled, ill-tempered child; and that hugging your baby should be limited.
As science progresses and studies are completed, the evidence has shown that smoking is indeed dangerous to our health and hugging babies actually helps raise more emotionally secure adults. Evidence has now shown that the early introduction of solid foods (prior to 4 months) is not a good idea, even if your Grandmother or your Mother did it.
Many years ago, indeed within the last century, infants began to be introduced to solid foods very early on in their new lives. These solid foods were typically a mixture of some sort of flour with a milk base. The reasons for this were many and varied. Prior to the invention of infant formula, babies were breast fed up to the first year of life and oftentimes longer. Breast milk is the most perfect food for babies after all. Current studies and research have proven that breastfeeding as long as possible and introducing solid foods at 6 months of age or later is best.
Many underdeveloped societies continue to delay solids for as long as possible; it is inconvenient, if not almost impossible, for those who must toil or gather food all day to stop to prepare food for their infants. Breastfeeding for as long as possible is not only most healthy, it is most convenient and is the ultimate “fast food”. In the “old days”, when it came time to progress in giving an infant solid foods, many babies were eating straight from the table. Babies were often eating “adult food” at an age when they were able to “chew”. Today, this is called baby-led weaning. These early “table foods” often consisted of breads, eggs, and bits and pieces of “pre-chewed” foods that the mother would offer. Gerber and other commercial baby food companies did not exist until 1927 and later.
Introducing babies to solid foods in the past included practices and recipes that would shock us today
For example, we found this from the year 1852; read an excerpt from a cookbook which includes a chapter on cooking food and feeding babies and children:
“Food for a young infant — Take of fresh cow’s milk one table-spoons full, and mix with 2 table-spoonsfull of hot water; sweeten with loaf-sugar as much as may be agreeable. This quantity if sufficient for once feeding a new-born infant; and the same quantity may be given every 2 or 3 hours — not oftener — till the mother’s breast affords the natural nourishment.”
“Thickened milk for young infants when 6 months old - Take 1 pint of milk, 1 pint of water; boil it and add 1 tablespoon of flour. Dissolve the flour first in half a teacup of water; it must be strained in gradually and boiled hard for 20 minutes. As the child grows older, one-third water. If properly made, it is the most nutritious, at the same time the most delicate food that can be given to young infants.”
Ms. Hale’s book also recommends stale bread as a staple in the diet as well as liberal amounts of sugar in fruits and vegetables. I wonder what Ms. Hale would think of her feeding advice and recipes in this day and age considering the studies and research in nutrition. It’s a good thing that as the years passed and science evolved, the medical community began changing its stance on infant nutrition and introducing solid foods to infants.
“In our colonial and pioneer days, most people raised their own food, but as our nation has become industrialized and urbanized, we find that now only 7 per cent of our population produces the food for our entire nation, and our consumers generally buy their food in stores. Even as late as the beginning of the twentieth century, infant feeding practices could be considered unscientific and primitive. Only in recent years have knowledge of metabolism and the rapid increase in nutritional science permitted progress in infant feeding. ” Feeding families and children–1776 to 1976. A bicentennial study.
The “Open Gut” and Introducing Solid Foods Early
It is said that infants have an “open gut” or a “virgin gut”. This state of the gut (intestines) extends from birth to between 4 and 6 months of age. “After birth the gut mucosa is challenged by a myriad of antigens, from viruses to commensal microbiota and dietary antigens. Although controlled in the mature gut, these antigens may induce inflammation in the developing gastrointestinal tract.” Pediatrics, Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics
Studies have shown that an immature gut may allow whole proteins, microbes, pathogens and possibly bits of foods to pass into the bloodstream. It is quite possible that this is a causative factor in developing food allergies and “colic”.
Optimal Nutrition and Introducing Solid Foods Early
It is a known fact that breast milk, and even formula, contains the proper combination of essential nutrients to sustain a baby’s healthy growth and development well into the 9 month age range or longer. While your grandmother may have been fed rice and milk gruel at 2 weeks of age, science now tells us that solid foods should not replace breast milk or formula too early. Introducing solid foods early will deprive a baby of these crucial nutrients and also replace the amounts of breast milk or formula a baby needs.
“Exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 mo of life followed by optimal complementary feeding are critical public health measures for reducing and preventing morbidity and mortality in young children.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition – Feb. 2007
With the advance of science, we also now know that basing an infant’s diet on cow’s milk is not healthy. Cow’s milk has been shown to hinder iron absorption and does not contain all the important nutrients a baby needs to grow healthy. For this reason, science tells us it is best to introduce cow’s milk at 12 months of age. We also now know that an infant needs “good” fats and carbohydrates in the diet; a diet of stale bread or plain flour soaked in warmed cow’s milk does little to boost the nutritional status of an infant.
Over-Feeding, Self-Regulation of Food Intake and Introducing Solid Foods Early
Many pediatric authorities suggest that the early introduction of solid foods may lead to obesity later in life due to the lack of self-regulation. Your baby needs to be able to learn for him or herself when he or she is full. In the past, this type of information, based on scientific research, was unavailable to parents.
Babies who are fed solid foods earlier than 6 months of age may lack the ability to regulate how much solid food they are eating. As you are feeding your baby, you control the amounts that your baby is eating. Until a baby is able to clearly indicate that he or she is full (either by turning away from the spoon, batting the spoon away or clamping the mouth closed for example), the risk of overfeeding solids is high. Again, parents need to pay close attention to their babies cues particularly if they are introducing solids early.
6 Months of Age and 12 Months of Age – how are these ages “magical” in that solid foods are now ok?
Just why it is that once baby turns 6 months of age, suddenly a baby is ready for solids? There are many reasons that 6 months of age is the “magical” age for introducing solids, here are a few:
- Baby’s intestines should be fully “closed”
- Babies are less likely to aspirate foods
- Baby is better able to recognize that she is full and regulate how much she needs to eat
- Baby is able to indicate she is full by turning away from food
- Baby should be have fully developed head control and be able to sit up with minimal assistance
- Baby has had breast milk or formula during the crucial first 6 months of life; giving him the healthiest start with optimal nutrients
There are many reasons that 12 months of age is the “magical” age for introducing “forbidden” solids; here are a few:
Baby has been sensitized to a variety of foods and allergies are less likely to be induced
Baby’s development is such that some forbidden foods, cow’s milk for example, will not adversely affect health.
Baby’s gastrointestinal system is better able to process pathogens, such as botulism spores in honey.
Read More on Introducing Solid Foods to Babies
Infant Feeding in the 20th Century - Journal of Nutrition, 2001
A Century of Raising Children – Newsweek article
Feeding Children from 1776 to 1996 – Journal of American Dietetic Assoc.
Is Your Baby Ready for Solids? – our own page