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The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the United Nations Standing Committee on Nutrition and The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), among many other health organizations, all recommend that babies be exclusively breastfed until six months of age. These organizations also note that formula is an adequate alternative for moms who choose not to, or who cannot breastfeed. However, formula doesn’t change the exclusivity rule. Breastfed or formula-fed means a baby should receive absolutely zero solid foods until they are six months old or older. However, a new study by the CDC finds that parents aren’t heeding this almost universal advice, and as many as 40% may be giving their babies solid food far too soon. Of the 1334 mothers included in the study, around 40.4% of moms introduced their baby to solid food before the age of four months. Breastfeeding mothers were the least likely to introduce solids too early (24%) while parents who fed formula or a mix of formula and breast milk were more likely to introduce solids too soon (around 50%).
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In the study, the CDC notes that the most common reasons parents offered for giving their babies solid foods too early included:
- “My baby was old enough.”
- “My baby seemed hungry.”
- “I wanted to feed my baby something in addition to breast milk or formula.”
- “It would help my baby sleep longer at night.”
- “My baby wanted the food I ate.”
Most alarming is the fact that many parents told CDC researchers that, “A doctor or other health care professional said my baby should begin eating solid food.” Yikes! I’ve personally had parents tell me that they started their baby on solids early because their baby, “Is bigger than other babies, so he’s hungrier” and “My partner can’t breastfeed and he wants to bond with the baby.” Unfortunately, none of the above mentioned excuses stand up scientifically. Breast milk for six months is best, followed by formula. Solids shouldn’t even be part of the first six-month equation.
Most recommendations surrounding feeding a baby solids say wait until six months, although, there’s more to it than that. Major health organizations, such as the AAP note that babies should not be fed solids until:
- Your baby’s birth weight has doubled.
- Your baby has good independent control of his neck and head.
- Your baby can sit up with just a little support.
- Your baby can show you that he is full by pulling away when you offer food or by shutting his mouth.
Babies under four months of age can rarely accomplish all of the above, so it’s troubling to hear that so many parents are offering solids before the age of four months. Kelley Scanlon, an epidemiologist with the CDC and an author of the study told The New York Times, “Clearly we need better dissemination of the recommendations on solid food introduction. Health care providers need to provide clear and accurate guidance, and then provide support to help parents carry out those recommended practices.” If a baby isn’t ready for solids he could choke, and as The New York Times article points out, feeding a baby solids too soon is also linked to gastroenteritis and diarrhea plus an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, eczema and Celiac disease. Your best bet is to find support to help you breastfeed successfully or formula feed until your baby is over the age of six months — make sure he’s sitting up well and then discuss solids with your pediatrician. Remember though, the AAP, among others, says that breastfeeding until 12 months of age, at least, is optimal — so even after starting solids you should continue to breastfeed.