It seems there's a lot of confusion and conflicting information about the best time to introduce solid foods to your baby.
The timing of solids introduction is an important issue as it can impact upon various health related factors.
Perhaps one of the most important factors is the length of exclusive breastfeeding. A baby’s developmental readiness is also an important factor to consider.
Here are 7 things you need to know about the timing of solids introduction:
#1: Leading Health Organisations Around The World Are Unified In Their Recommendations
Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), America’s Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization all recommend exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months (or ‘around’ 6 months) and then for solids to be introduced while breastfeeding continues for at least one year. These organisations are made up of a team of world leading experts who have taken all the available evidence into account to make these recommendations.
In fact, the NHMRC has recommended that solids be introduced around 6 months since 2003. Their latest infant feeding guidelines, which were release in 2013, still recommend introducing solids around 6 months.
Health professionals would require very good clinical reasoning (and quality evidence) if they were to advise differently to what these leading health organisations recommend.
#2: Developmental Readiness Is Important
For a baby to be developmentally ready for solids, he needs:
- To be able to sit upright and so have good head and trunk control
- To be able to reach for food and bring it to his mouth
- To have an absence of his tongue-extrusion reflex. This reflex makes a baby stick his tongue out when something is put into his mouth. Hence, its absence is important for a baby to be able to eat solid food.
Very few babies who are closer to 4 months will be developmentally ready for solids. By around 6 months, most will be.
The only way a baby who is not developmentally ready for solids could consume solid food is if pureed food was put into his mouth with a spoon. This isn’t really what eating solid food is about.
When solids are introduced, it is a lot about learning different tastes and textures as well as about joining in with family activities (a social experience).
Encouraging babies to chew is important for their oral motor development. Babies adjust more quickly to solids when they start around 6 months. Hence, if your baby is around 6 months and you start with pureed food, this should quickly progress to mashed and then minced and chopped foods. Speak to your child health nurse, speech therapist or dietitian for guidance with this.
#3: The 6 Month Recommendation Fits In With The Allergy Prevention ‘Window’
The research into allergy risk and the timing of solid introduction has suggested a lower risk of allergy if solids are introduced between 4-7 months. Whereas, introducing solids before 4 or after 7 months is associated with an increased risk of allergy. There is no evidence that there is any difference between introducing solids at 4 or 5 or 6 of 7 months in terms of allergy risk. So, the recommendation to introduce solids around 6 months fits in with the 4-7 month window.
It is also recommended that a variety of foods be introduced from around 6 months – there’s no need to delay the introduction of any particular food group. If your baby however, has already showed signs of allergy to a particular food you should consult a health professional such as your GP or dietitian who specialises in food allergies.
#4: Introducing Solids Prior To 6 Months May Mean Too Little Breastmilk
Since the recommendation is to introduce solids around 6 months, if solid food is started before this time there’s a risk the baby will drink too little breastmilk (or formula if the baby is formula-fed).
Breastmilk (or formula for a formula fed baby) continues to be a baby’s main source of nutrition for the first 12 months.
#5: Iron Rich Foods Are Important First Foods
A healthy-term baby is born with enough iron stores to last at least the first 6 months. Breastmilk provides such babies with iron over and above their iron stores from birth. Between 6 and 12 months, a baby’s iron stores begin to deplete. This is why iron rich foods (eg red meat) are recommended to be amongst the first foods introduced.
#6: Exclusive Breastfeeding Provides Protection From Infection
Exclusive breastfeeding for around the first 6 months provides a baby with important protection from infection (especially gastrointestinal). Exclusive breastfeeding means a baby is fed only breastmilk – no other liquids or food is given, not even water.
#7: Baby-Led Weaning May Be The Answer!
Baby-led weaning is where you let your baby feed themselves! Appropriate food is placed in front of your baby and he simply picks up whatever he fancies and puts it into his mouth. In this way, a baby is in control of what he eats and hence the timing of solids introduction becomes largely obsolete. For more information you could read the book Baby-Led Weaning by Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett on baby-led weaning.
So, now you can relax! Around 6 months is the time to introduce solids, taking your baby’s developmental readiness into account and considering baby-led weaning.