Most parents have heard reputable people-their doctor, family members, and other parents-say that it's safe to introduce solids to their baby when she is around four to six months old. (A "solid" is defined as any food other than breast milk or infant formula.) What you aren't often told is that most children are not developmentally ready to digest solids until at least six months of age or later.
Due to this advice and other misconceptions, many parents find themselves trying to spoon feed a tight-lipped infant. If your mother or even your doctor says your baby is ready for solids, don't be afraid to question their advice-especially if their reasoning involves any of the following misconceptions.
Misconception #1: Weight is an indicator of readiness for solids.
Both the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and World Health Organization (WHO) state that solids can be introduced at six months and beyond-regardless of whether a child has doubled his birth weight (a common myth), or is a petite or large baby. Some parents theorize that a larger baby has a greater need for foods besides breast milk or formula; others think that adding rice cereal to their baby's diet will help him gain weight.
Fact: Not only do breast milk and formula contain more calories and fat than most foods offered to infants, but they boast more nutrients and vitamins as well. Therefore, if a child is experiencing slow weight gain, it is actually more advisable to delay solids and continue with nutrient-rich breast milk or formula. True solid readiness hinges upon a baby's digestive tract maturation-not his weight. In the early months of a baby's life, his digestive tract is immature and unable to filter out harmful substances and likewise facilitate the absorption of nutrients.
Misconception #2: Cereal will help my baby sleep through the night.
You may or may not hear this wives tale come from a doctor, but well-meaning family members or friends may suggest this method.
Fact: There is no medical evidence to support this idea. In a controlled study done by the Pediatrics Department at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, 106 babies were given a bottle of formula containing a spoonful of rice cereal per ounce at five weeks old and four months old. Even when reducing the definition of sleeping through the night by two hours, no significant or consistent trend was found in increasing the baby's sleep. Putting cereal in a bottle puts your baby at risk for choking. In addition, the nutrient content of this combination is diluted and is linked to obesity later in life because of the high caloric intake.
Misconception #3: If baby shows interest in your food, drools, tries to grab your plate, she is ready for solid foods.
This is the main sign that most parents cite when deciding to expand their baby's diet beyond breast milk or formula. Though important, it is only one of many cues that your baby is truly ready to take the leap into solids.
Fact: More important to your baby than satisfying her little belly is feeling that she belongs. Developmentally, she expresses this need by mimicking mom or dad, and that includes their eating habits. If you want your baby to participate in meal time, but she just isn't ready for solids yet, try offering a "momsicle" made from frozen breast milk or formula.
Misconception #4: A baby needs solid food to ensure he's getting plenty of iron.
Many doctors tend to be concerned about your baby's iron intake, and commonly recommend an iron-fortified cereal when your baby is four to six months old. Premature babies, infants born to women with uncontrolled diabetes, and babies who are given cow's milk anytime during their first year of life are at greater risk for iron deficiency. Before assuming that your baby needs iron supplementation through foods or vitamins, ask for a hemoglobin test. If tests show your baby needs iron, then an iron-fortified formula is the best and most common option.
Fact: Healthy, full-term infants have iron reserves that last at least six months after birth. A study conducted by Dr. Pisacane of Napoli University found that at seven months, exclusively-breastfed (no solids, juices, or supplements of any kind) infants had "significantly higher hemoglobin levels at one year than breastfed babies who received solid foods earlier than seven months".
Get All the Facts
The World Health Organization, American Academy of Pediatrics, and many other worldwide health organizations recommend exclusive breastfeeding (or formula feeding) for at least the first six months of a baby's life. Many children thrive on breast milk alone for up to 12 months of age. Ounce for ounce, breast milk and formula have higher caloric, nutrient, and fat contents than solid foods.
Starting solids too early has risks, including an increase in food allergies and higher risk of developing diabetes. Waiting until your baby shows all of the signs of readiness for solids are your best and safest option. Inform yourself on the topic of solids by talking to your pediatrician and researching well-respected sources before offering your baby solids that she might not be ready for.