by Kimberly Allen, RN
One of the questions I am asked most frequently by new mom’s is when to start their infant on solid food. Unfortunately, a recent study done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that approximately 93% of infants were given solid foods before 6 months of age and that at least 40% were given solid food before reaching 4 months of age. Some babies were given solid foods before they were even 4 weeks old.
There are a variety of reasons why new parents start their infants on solid food. Many say that their doctor told them it was OK to start giving their baby solid food, while others did it because an older relative, like a mother or grandmother, or a friend told them it was OK or that they should be giving solid food. The reason most new mom’s want to start solid food is so their baby will go longer between feedings. I can’t tell you the number of young mom’s that I’ve met that thicken their infants formula with cereal, especially at night in an attempt to get their baby to sleep through the night. This is an old recommendation that pediatricians gave back when the “baby boomer” generation was being born. Many of the babies were small then so doctor’s frequently recommended that parents start their baby on cereals as well as other solid foods when they were only a few weeks old telling them it would help the baby sleep through the night. However, we now know that not only is that not true but it’s not the best way for babies to start on solid foods.
Today the American Academy of Pediatricians as well as other physicians groups recommend that babies are not started on solid food until they are 6 months of age. So why shouldn’t you start your baby on solid foods before 6 months of age? For one thing, a baby’s intestines are not mature enough to handle solid foods. When your baby is between 4 to 7 months the lining of the intestines goes through a growth spurt known as closure. This is when the intestines become more selective in preventing potentially allergenic substances from entering the bloodstream. The more mature intestines also start secreting an immuglobulin protein that acts like a protective coating preventing harmful allergens that can produce antibodies creating food allergies from entering your baby’s bloodstream.
Another reason is that babies are born with a tongue – thrust reflux that protects them from choking on any foreign substance that is put in their mouth. That’s why it’s such a chore trying to get food into a baby before they are 4 months old. The tongue-thrust reflex starts going away between 4 to 6 months of age. Before 4 to 6 months of age an infants ability to swallow solid food is not fully developed either. It isn’t until they reach 4 to 6 months of age that they develop the ability to move food from the front of their mouth to the back so they can swallow it. It is also important that your baby is able to sit up on their own, in a highchair before starting solid foods. Babies also do not have the ability to chew until they start getting teeth, which rarely appear before 6 months of age, meaning the baby should still be sucking instead of chewing. Also, if you wait until your baby is at least 6 months old, you’ll find that they like to start imitating you, so when they see you eat with a fork and enjoy it they want to do the same thing.
The bottom line is that if you start giving your baby solid food too early you’re diluting your baby’s nutritional intake giving them more calories and less of the nutrients they need to grow. It also increases your baby’s risk of developing chronic diseases like diabetes and obesity as well as autoimmune disorders like celiac disease and eczema. Having a new baby can be exciting and overwhelming at the same time it’s important to be patient and allow your baby to develop naturally.
Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to HealthAndFitnessTalk.com, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.