Recommendations for introducing solids have changed a lot in the last couple of decades. Women used to be pressured to feed rice cereal to their babies as early as a few weeks old (!) for a better night’s sleep.
When I was a baby, moms were told to start solids between 6 weeks and 4 months old, depending on baby’s sleep pattern and if the baby was struggling with reflux or excessive spit up.
When I became a mom, I started introducing solids at 4 months, based on different recommendations. Recent research and the reactions of my kids makes me wish I had waited to introduce solids.
What Are the Current Recommendations for Introducing Solids?
Both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend exclusive breastfeeding until baby is 6 months old.
“Introducing babies to complementary foods too early can cause them to miss out on important nutrients that come from breast milk and infant formula.” explains Chloe M. Barrera, MPH, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Today, despite these recommendations and studies that advise otherwise, over 54% of women surveyed introduce solids to their infants before 6 months! The survey showed that 16.3% of babies are given solids before 4 months and 38.3% between 4-5 months.
In another survey, parents cited these reasons for introducing solids before 6 months:
- 90% said they thought their baby was old enough to start eating solids
- 71% said their baby seemed hungry a lot of the time
- 55% said their doctor or health care professional recommended this
Why Wait Until 6 Months to Introduce Solids?
Babies are born with very immature digestive systems. While the GI tract is still maturing, infant’s systems are not equipped to digest anything but breast milk. If anything but breastmilk is introduced, even formula, it can permanently alter baby’s gut microbiota, causing problems like necrotizing enterocolitis, diarrheal disease, and allergies.
“In infants, the ring of muscle between the esophagus and the stomach—the lower esophageal sphincter (LES)—is not fully mature, allowing stomach contents to flow backward,” says Andrew E. Mulberg, M.D., a pediatrician and pediatric gastroenterologist. “In time, the LES will mature and open only when the baby swallows and will remain tightly closed the rest of the time, keeping stomach contents where they belong”
That said, some mamas simply don’t produce enough breast milk (and other moms may not want to breastfeed for various reasons). If breastfeeding doesn’t work for you, that’s ok! There are plenty of healthy formulas, and many babies thrive on formula. Consider adding probiotics to baby’s formula to help with immune and gut function.
But that’s just the beginning! Here, a host of other reasons to hold off on introducing solids until 6 months:
1. Long-term health
Holding off on all solids until 6 months of age can boost your child’s long-term health. Because infants who start eating food need less calories from breastmilk, they may lose out on some of the most important benefits of breastfeeding. These include lower risk of obesity, diabetes, respiratory and ear infections, as well as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Breastfeeding also reduces the frequency of doctor visits, hospitalizations, and prescriptions, according to the CDC.
2. Improved immune system
“One of the benefits of breastmilk is that each mother provides custom-designed milk to protect her infant,” according to Dr. Sears. “When a baby is exposed to a new germ, mother’s body manufactures antibodies to that germ.” One study suggests that these maternal antibodies in breast milk improve an infant’s intestinal immune system—an effect that continues to benefit baby well into adulthood.
3. Allergy Prevention
Breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months has been shown to significantly lessen the risk and severity of food allergies in families with a strong history of them. It also reduces the risk of skin sensitivities, like eczema.
4. Higher IQ
One study found that exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months or longer was associated with a higher IQ. At seven-year followups, the IQ of exclusively breastfed babies was an average of 3.8 points higher gain than those who were not exclusively breastfeed during this time period. Researchers think this is because maternal milk is rich in fatty acids and other bioactive components essential for brain development.
5. Mama’s Milk Supply
The best way to maintain your milk supply is to keep nursing—nursing is all about supply and demand. When you start introducing solids, baby needs less breast milk since he/she is getting calories elsewhere. But babies under 6 months of age get all of the calories and nutrients they need from breast milk, so there is no need to put your supply at risk by introducing solids.
There Are Always Exceptions
Like just about anything with babies, there is no hard-and-fast rule when it comes to introducing solids. At the end of the day, every baby is different, and every baby develops at different speeds. Some babies are more advanced and may be ready for solid foods around 5-5.5 months; other babies may not be ready for solid foods until 7-8 months. And for other babies, your pediatrician may recommend starting solids if baby needs extra calories or nutrition. Don’t focus too much on the number if it seems like your baby is showing signs that he/she is ready a littler earlier or a little later. Always work with your doctor to best determine the right time to introduce solids to your baby.
A Note About Introducing Solids
Waiting until after 6 months of age to introduce solids and water is important for optimal long-term health. After 6 months, watch your baby for signs of readiness. Baby should be able to support his/her head very well and sit up on his/her own. Baby may even start to show interest, by reaching for your food.
If baby reaches 6 months and doesn’t seem ready for solids, talk to your pediatrician about how to proceed. For most babies, iron stores begin to drop around this time—many babies will begin to need more nutrition than mom’s milk alone can provide. Waiting too long to introduce solids can also lead to delayed developmental skills, food texture sensitivities, and allergies.
Once baby is ready to start solids, go slowly. Just because you’re ready to start introducing solids doesn’t mean you can feed baby whatever you’re eating. Start with complementary foods and continue breastfeeding.
The WHO recommends that, in addition to breast milk, baby eats
- solids 2-3 times a day between 6-8 months,
- 3-4 times a day between 9-11 months,
- 3-4 times a day with an additional snack 1-2 times a day between 12-24 months.
Ready to start introducing solids? I recommend trying baby led weaning! Once you start, watch for signs of discomfort, like indigestion, constipation, diarrhea, and increased spitting up. If baby shows signs of discomfort, he/she may not be ready just yet. Reduce the amount of food you’re introducing and consider adding probiotics to help with digestion. If that doesn’t work, take a little break and try again in a few days.
How About You?
When did you start feeding baby solids? How did you know your baby was ready?