Science of Mom reader Roxanne left a comment on my post about the recent peanut allergy study. She wondered about starting solid foods with her 4-month-old baby boy:
“Do you have an opinion on starting solids at 4 months versus 6 months? I noticed that many of the studies on allergy include babies in the 4-6 month range, but I think that the current recommendation is to wait until 6 months. I ask because my baby WILL NOT drink out of a bottle while I’m at work. He is miserable all day. I’m only gone 8-3 including travel time, so if he could just get a little something at 11am, I think he might actually nap and not cry all day. We have tried everything. If you know of any studies please let me know. He is 18 weeks old.”
I totally understand Roxanne’s confusion, because there’s lots of conflicting advice on this topic. This is a question that I tackled in-depth in my book (due out in July!), but I wanted to offer some of this information on my blog as well.
Let’s start by getting our terminology straight.
Starting solids is just the beginning of a slow transition from an exclusive milk diet to a diet of table foods. In some countries, this is also called “weaning,” which is confusing since the same term means stopping milk feeding in the U.S. (i.e. weaning from breastfeeding, weaning from a bottle). “Complementary feeding” is often used in the research and public health worlds. This is an apt term, because the goal with feeding solids to babies is to complement breast milk or formula, which will continue to provide most of babies’ calories through at least the end of the first year.
What is the history of starting solids?
There is a common assumption that longer exclusive breastfeeding – and longer delay in starting solids foods – must be more natural, and hence, healthier. But looking at traditional human cultures, with no access to commercial baby food, modern pediatricians, or divisive Internet forums, can give us valuable perspective on what is “natural.” A survey of childbirth and breastfeeding practices in 186 non-industrial cultures reported that solid foods were routinely introduced before 6 months, a finding that surprised the author:
“Contrary to the expectation of a prolonged period of breast-milk as the sole source of infant nutrition, solid foods were introduced before one month of age in one-third of the cultures, at between one and six months in another third, and was postponed more than six months for only one-third.”1
A more recent cross-cultural analysis of 113 nonindustrial populations from around the world found that parenting introduced solid foods before 6 months in more than half, with 5-6 months being the most common time for introduction.2
Human diets and infant care practices vary tremendously around the world, so it’s impossible to say if starting solids at 4 months or 6 months is more natural. As to which is healthier – well, that’s where we need to look at the science.
What is the official advice about starting solid foods?
Public health and professional organizations fall into two camps when it comes to recommendations about solids foods: they either recommend starting between 4 and 6 months OR at 6 months. There are well-respected organizations on both sides. Continue reading