See also: Starting Solids For Baby which includes ideas for first foods and latest government recommendations.
The recommended age for introducing other foods into a breastfed baby’s diet has varied over the centuries. In times gone by, babies have been given a wide range of supplements from as early as the first hours after birth!
In recent years, mothers have been urged to begin starting solids at four to six months. Reasons for doing so included increasing baby’s weight gains, making the baby sleep through the night and getting baby used to foods other than breastmilk.
While these reasons, and others, may have seemed reasonable at the time, the negative impact of exposing a baby’s immature digestive system to foreign foods was not always understood. Higher incidence of food-related allergies and obesity in our population may be attributed to inappropriate infant feeding.
The Australian Breastfeeding Association has, for many years, encouraged parents to delay introducing solids until around six months of age. Therefore, ABA welcomed the recent announcement that the new Australian Dietary Guidelines just released by The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) advises that babies should receive only breastmilk for the first six months.
These guidelines outline the latest scientific evidence and mirror what our association has been saying for years – that babies should be fed only breastmilk for the first six months. Even when solids are introduced gradually, breastfeeding should continue until one year and beyond – for as long as the baby and mother desire.
The NHMRC is setting a target of 50% of mothers ‘exclusively’ breastfeeding until six months. At the moment it is under 20%. (Exclusive breastfeeding means babies receive no other foods, juice, vitamins, infant formula or other milks.)
For most babies, there is no need to add to the breastmilk diet any earlier than six months. There are good reasons for not introducing your baby to other foods before she is about six months old. Breastfed babies often reject solids, apart from ‘tasting’ them, well beyond the first year. Babies will not benefit from the introduction of solids or other fluids until they are developmentally ready.
Many mothers find they come under great pressure from others to begin solids, often much earlier than recommended. It can be very difficult to deal with well-intended advice, especially if it comes from the baby’s grandmother or other mothers. The Australian Breastfeeding Association booklet, ‘Especially for Grandparents’, can be a useful resource at times like this.
Young babies have a natural tongue thrust reflex, which causes the tongue to push out a spoonful of food. By about six months, babies start to lose this tongue thrust reflex, making it easier for them to swallow food. Giving baby solids earlier than six months does not mean giving the baby a better start. A young baby’s digestive system can’t cope well with foreign fats and proteins that are found in other milks, eggs, meat, vegetables and cereals. A baby’s kidneys cannot easily process food containing too large an amount of salt. Babies who start solids later have less chance of being allergic or intolerant to foods as their systems are more developed and are ready to take the variety of food.
Young babies do not need the extra kilojoules which solid foods may give them. There does seem to be a connection between children who are overweight in infancy and those who later have problems with obesity. Breastfed babies are less likely to become overweight.
Will Starting Solids Help My Baby Sleep Through The Night?
A common reason for starting solids has been the belief that solids will help the baby sleep through the night. There has been research into this question, and it has been found that babies will not necessarily sleep any longer on solids than on an adequate feed of milk. Some babies need more regular night feeds than others. Some babies become miserable and less able to sleep when solids are introduced early.
How can parents recognise the right time to offer other foods to their breastfed baby?
At around six months, or possibly later, your baby will let you know when she is ready for extra foods. She may seem unsatisfied even after a few days of more frequent breastfeeds. She may try to grasp food from your plate (or somebody else’s), or show an interest in eating when you do. Keep in mind though, that babies of this age (and earlier) often try to grab everything, and put things in their mouths. If this is the only indicator, you may like to wait a little longer. Let your baby take time to learn new skills. Some babies obviously relish the opportunity to try new foods. Others are very fussy and indicate their disapproval at being given food that isn’t breastmilk. If your baby does not show interest in family foods, wait a week or two before offering them again. Some babies are seven or eight months old before they begin solid foods.
Starting solids – like learning to walk and talk – will happen when your baby is developmentally ready. Like these other exciting milestones there can be a lot of competition between family and friends to get there first! When it comes to eating other foods, being the first to start doesn’t make you a winner!
See also: Starting Solids For Baby which includes ideas for first foods and latest government recommendations, released 2013.