Are you considering starting solid foods for your little one? It can be an exciting time to see your baby meet such a big milestone and the prospect of someone else being able to feed your baby can be thrilling, too. Not to mention, you'll get to see your kid cover their adorable face with food and get some adorable pictures along the way. Many families can get really eager to start solids, but how do you know when it's your baby who is ready for solids and not just your in-laws who are more than ready to give the baby full meals? It's a lot to work through and everyone has a different opinion - your mom, best friend, doctor, and that mom's group you're in are giving you conflicting advice. Thankfully there's some solid evidence to guide you through this decision and we've got you covered.
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“My baby is 4 months old and not gaining weight as fast as he used to. My pediatrician recommended giving some rice cereal before bed. It might even help him sleep longer at night!” ........ If I had a nickel for every time I heard this story, I would have many nickels.
“When should I introduce solid foods? My baby is so interested when we’re eating. That must mean she’s ready, right?” My son shows an interest in my phone and wine, but he’s not going to get added to our phone plan just yet, and he has another 20 years and 4 months before the legal drinking age. There are a lot of myths surrounding the introduction of “complementary foods” as the WHO calls them. That’s a really great way to think about them, too. They’re foods to complement, not replace, breastmilk in your baby’s diet.
Let’s go over the basics. I’m not going to get into HOW to introduce complementary foods (we already have a fantastic e-book on the topic in our Member’s Only Vault), but right now I’m gonna go over the WHEN and WHY. EVERY SINGLE ORGANIZATION (WHO, AAP, UNICEF, and many more) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life. NOT 4-6 months. Not 6 months unless they aren’t sleeping long stretches. Not 6 months unless their weight gain slows down. Not 6 months unless they’re looking at your steak and licking their lips. 6. Months. Of. Life. Any doctor who tells you otherwise is not following the recommendations of their own governing bodies.
Developmentally, breastfed babies grow more rapidly than formula fed babies their first 4 months. Then their weight gain slows down compared to formula fed babies. Weight gain that rockets up a growth curve the first few months all while your stationary baby packs on the pounds is VERY likely to plateau and find its own biological normal curve when that roly poly baby starts trading their double chin(s) for new motor skills like rolling, scooting, and crawling (disclaimer: losing weight is NEVER normal, and dropping curves should always be monitored by your pediatrician and lactation expert). Weight gain that levels off is not a good reason to introduce solids, and true suboptimal weight gain should be managed with lactation support, for reasons I’ll get to in a minute.
"My cousin's best friend said cereal will help my baby sleep through the night!" The sleep thing drives me crazy. If you look into the nutritional benefits, it's not logical it all. Commercial baby cereals have 15 calories per tablespoon. Breastmilk is a dynamic, living fluid and has an average of 22 calories per ounce, but can get up into the mid-30s! One thing that has an effect on the calorie content of breastmilk is complete and frequent emptying of a breast. You know those clusterfeeding little babies who howl for milk constantly during their “witching hours” in the evening? While you’re feeling like you’re going to lose your mind if they don’t unlatch soon, they’re emptying your breasts more fully, boosting the calorie content of your milk in the process. Babies naturally do this if they’re allowed to. The best way to get your baby extra calories before a nice stretch of sleep is frequently nursing them at the breast in the evening, not a measly tablespoon or two of tasteless cereal.
Another great reason to delay until true signs of readiness (found here) after 6 months of age is to protect your supply! Several studies have found that babies who started complementary foods prior to 6 months tended to replace their milk feeds with solid foods and wean prematurely. This will absolutely tank your supply, and it’s much harder (although certainly not impossible with careful management) to boost your supply at that stage of lactation. If foods are introduced after 6 months, they add to a baby’s milk diet without replacing milk, thus protecting your supply!
Developmentally, babies should absolutely start showing an interest in things their parents do. I affectionately say that babies come into the world about as interactive as an adorable loaf of bread. They don’t do a whole lot. But from those first intentional social smiles, your baby starts taking an active interest in what you’re doing, learning from every action and reaction and trying to figure out the world. “If mom is showing an interest in putting this weird looking stuff inside her face hole, I probably should too, right?” “If mom likes holding this light up rectangle in her hand and pushing buttons, I should try!” It’s a healthy sign of social development that your baby wants to do what you do. It just isn’t a sign of readiness for solids.
Another big reason to delay complementary feeding would be immunity. Your baby is born with large spaces between the cells of their GI tract. Breastmilk has properties that coat the GI tract to protect it from bad things sneaking into those wide spaces. This is one of the reasons breastfed babies have fewer illnesses and recover more quickly. Those spaces are open so your baby can absorb all the wonderful immune properties from your milk while their immune system is underdeveloped and fragile. Those spaces start to close around 6 months, at the same time your baby starts producing those immune properties on their own! It’s a beautiful system that works exactly how it’s supposed to. The problem with introducing anything but breastmilk is due to those open spaces. Complementary foods and water don’t have anything in them to protect the gut, so any foodborne bacteria, contaminants from water, or even food proteins that might cause allergic reactions in some predisposed babies can sneak through those spaces and straight into the bloodstream.
Think of your milk like a constant river of protection going all the way through your baby until their body is strong enough to take over on its own. Early solids might cause some weird poops or rashes in a healthy baby, but in a baby predisposed to food allergies, or in a third world country without access to safe food and clean water, the choice to introduce food to a baby under 6 months could literally be life or death and shouldn’t be made lightly or without knowing all of the pros and cons.
There are LOTS of other reasons babies should receive only breastmilk for their first 6 months of life, but these are the main ones to keep in mind when the 42nd person suggests giving cereal or formula so your baby sleeps through the night, or you’re worried about a dip in your baby’s growth curve. If you have growth or supply concerns, get help from a lactation expert instead of risking your baby’s health and your milk supply by introducing early solids.
Now it's time to hear from you. Have you ever been advised to start solids before 6 months? Tell us in the comments below!
*If your baby is at least 6 months old and showing true sign of readiness, I highly suggest checking out our starting solids guide in our members vault! If you're not a member yet, you can sign up today and instantly get access to all the evidenced based content to help you with everything from bump to weaning! Get your access now!
Hey! I’m Allison, one of the Lactation Experts with Successful Breastfeeding! I am an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) and have over seven years of experience as a pediatric nurse working one on one with mothers and babies. My most important credential is being “Mama” to two little ones. I am so happy to be part of the Successful Breastfeeding team; to be able to offer support in a more relaxed setting! I can help you meet your breastfeeding goals no matter where you are - virtual sessions for convenient, accessible help no matter where you live. Breastfeeding is a relationship between you and your baby, and it’s my job to support it, whatever your goals and needs happen to be.
Kelly Maher, CLC, CLE
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