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Many Babies Are Fed Solid Foods Too Soon, CDC Study Finds

A study published in late March, 2013 in the American Academy of Pediatrics journal Pediatrics found that a majority of babies in the United States may be getting introduced to solid foods much too early, often leading to a variety of chronic illnesses.

Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surveyed 1,334 new moms nationwide; they found that almost 93 percent had introduced solid foods to their infants before the babies were six months old, 40 percent had introduced solids before four months, and 9 percent had done so before four weeks of age.

Alarming to the study’s lead author was the fact that in many cases, the mothers reported that their baby’s doctor or health care provider had recommended that they introduce the solids.

Mothers who participated in the study were asked to fill out food diaries and questionnaires, which helped researchers determine the reasons the mothers had for introducing solids, and the infants’ age when they did so.

Besides a pediatrician’s recommendation, moms offering foods to infants younger than six months cited other reasons for doing so, including baby seeming hungry, baby wanting mother’s food, baby sleeping longer at night, and the cost of baby formula.

Some experts feel that the fact that so many pediatricians are recommending introduction of solid foods before six months is a sign that word is not getting out about current solid food recommendations for babies.

For many years, the AAP recommended that mothers not feed babies solid foods before four months of age. But in view of growing evidence that babies this young can be harmed by solid foods, and with our new stronger understanding of the unequaled health benefits of breast milk, the organization changed its position, stating in 2012 that babies should be fed exclusively breast milk for the first six months (or only formula, when breast milk is not an option).

The new recommendation to wait six months before solids are introduced came as a result of research which found that babies who get solids earlier than that can be at a greater risk for developing food allergies, food sensitivities, eczema, celiac disease, and even diabetes and obesity.

Before six months of age, babies have not yet developed the appropriate gut bacteria that will help them process solid foods safely. Early solid introduction can thereby lead to gastroenteritis and diarrhea. If a baby consumes more calories through solids, but the solids give her diarrhea, she is actually absorbing less food, on top of fewer nutrients.

In addition to the enhanced probability for illnesses, giving babies solid foods too early can mean that they don’t drink an adequate amount of breast milk or formula, resulting in poorer nutrition. Breast milk and formula have a better balance of nutrients for baby than solid foods, so, whereas solids may have more calories, they will offer your infant less nutritional value.

The study found that economic considerations were often a factor in a mother’s decision to introduce solid foods early, with women of lower incomes viewing formula as too expensive. Women who used formula exclusively, or those who fed formula in addition to breast milk, were more apt to start solids early (and more likely to say that their doctors had told them it was okay to do so). The study found that moms who fed babies formula were more than twice as likely to start solids early, in fact, than those who exclusively breast-fed (53 percent vs. 24 percent.)

Many parents will decide to start baby on solids at four months because they notice that their infant seems to no longer get full on milk alone. However, this is not a cue to start solids. The increased appetite that parents may see at four months is an indicator of the growth spurt that babies undergo between 4 and 6 months. It only means that the baby’s body is amassing nutrients, and the solution is to increase baby’s milk intake.

To know when your baby is truly ready for solids, doctors advise parents to look for signs such as these:

  • baby puts hands in mouth and makes chewing motions
  • baby grabs food from parents’ plate
  • baby’s tongue does not push spoon away when spoon with food is offered
  • baby’s weight has doubled since birth (this usually happens by six months, but can happen a little before or after)
  • baby is able to hold his or her head up on his or her own
  • baby is able to sit

If baby cannot hold head or sit up, giving solid foods may actually pose a choking danger.

by Jamell Andrews

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