The importance of breastfeeding and of introducing solid foods later for preventing food allergies in children has become clearer to health professionals in recent years. Now, a new British study has found that waiting until at least 17 weeks of age to introduce solid foods helps infants avoid food allergies later on. That same study found that babies were more likely to be immune to food allergies if they were also being breastfed when solids were introduced at 17 weeks or later.
Overlapping the start of solid foods with breastfeeding seems to teach the baby’s immune system that solid foods are safe; or it could be that the mother’s breast milk provides the right types and numbers of cells and organisms that will strengthen the baby’s immunity, thereby preventing the infant’s body from developing allergies to different foods.
Previous research had found that introducing solid foods before six months of age increased the baby’s chances of later developing food-related allergies.
The study’s lead researcher advised mothers to continue breastfeeding after solid foods are introduced into the infant’s diet, as breast milk has powerful and unique immunity-building cells and organisms that are passed on to the infant and develop the child’s gut flora, which will fight potential allergens. Immune-system cells from the mother’s breast milk are also ultimately transferred to the baby’s blood; these cells will then be replicated by the child’s system even once breastfeeding ends, and they will help to fight harmful substances and foreign organisms for the rest of that child’s life.
Lead researcher Kate Grimshaw, PhD, RD, an allergy specialist at the University of Southampton, and her team, concluded that introducing solid foods before 17 weeks was more likely to lead to food allergies later on.
Grimshaw and her colleagues examined the diets of 41 babies who went on to develop food allergies by age two, and the diets of 82 babies who did not develop food allergies. The researchers found that the children who developed food allergies had been started on solid foods earlier than the children who did not develop allergies — children with allergies had been started on solid foods at 16 weeks or before.
The children with allergies were also less likely to have been getting breastfed at the time that any form of cow’s milk protein was introduced. Cow’s milk protein is present in cow’s milk, and in some processed foods, including many infant formulas.
The British study was published in a recent online issue of the journal Pediatrics.
An increasing number of American pediatricians, as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics, recommend that solid foods not be started before six months of age. The AAP also recommends that solids be introduced while the baby is still breastfeeding. In addition, the AAP advises that babies breastfeed exclusively for at least 6 months, and that they continue to be breastfed to 1 year of age along with eating solid foods.
While moms may be eager to start their infants on solids to help the babies sleep through the night, modern research has shown that babies are better off only consuming their mothers’ milk for the first six months of life, as breast milk supplies them with all the nutrients that they need for the first six months, in addition to developing and strengthening their immune systems.
Many studies have found that breastfeeding offers a long list of important benefits for a new infant that baby formula or other milks do not offer; breastfeeding has also been found in other studies to offer the mother protection from breast cancer when the mother breastfeeds for more than a few months.
In addition to increasing the risk of food allergies, introducing babies to solids too early carries risks of more immediate digestive difficulties and of choking. A baby who is ready for solid foods is one who can hold his or her head up by themselves, can sit up without help, can open mouth and swallow semi-solids with no difficulties, and shows an interest in eating solid foods.
Pediatricians recommend that a baby’s first solid be a grain cereal mixed with breast milk (or with an iron-fortified formula, as long as baby is at least six months); after grains are introduced, babies should be fed a single fruit at a time, then a single vegetable at a time. Feeding one item alone over a period of time will help you know whether or not your infant has problems digesting that food.
By Jamell Andrews