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It's one of the most pleasurable early milestones our little ones reach: eating solids. There's something about spooning drippy blobs of gruel into a baby's mouth that makes the whole parenting enterprise feel like it's going somewhere. This baby isn't going to be a baby forever after all. Look! She's on solids.
Not so fast, says a new study in the journal Pediatrics. It looks like too many parents are jumping the gun on solids and setting their babies up for some rather serious consequences.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey of 1,334 mothers, according to a New York Times report on the CDC's findings, found that four out of every 10 parents had introduced solid foods before their babies reached the once-recommended 4-month mark. The survey found nine percent of the parents had introduced solids to babies as young as 4 weeks old.
The CDC had, until last year, recommended parents save the solids until their kids hit the 4-month mark. But evidence of the benefits of breast milk prompted the organization to raise the age for solids to 6 months and encouraged parents to breast- or formula-feed their babies exclusively for half a year.
Either way, babies are getting their first tastes of cereal and other mushed foods at a far earlier age than is safe and healthy for a still-developing eater. The reasons for early introduction varies, according to the reports, but one of the most alarming is that some parents reported their pediatricians had given them the green light. Kelly Scanlon, an epidemiologist with the CDC and an author of the study, told the Times that the Centers needed to come up with a better way to get the most updated information out to health care providers. It also begs the question: What other bad advice were some parents getting at well baby visits?
Surely a well-intentioned mother-in-law figures into a case of early solids or two.
Some parents said they started the formula-to-solids transition for financial reasons. Formula is simply more expensive than feeding the baby from the pantry or your plate. Parents also reported their babies' appetites were what made them reach for a spoon. (Surely a well-intentioned mother-in-law figures into a case of early solids or two.)
Still others thought adding cereal to their bottles would help their babies sleep through the night or gain weight (see above mother-in-law reference). While anecdotal evidence may seem to support these two strategies, there's little scientific evidence to back it up. In fact, babies who eat solids too soon may wind up shedding more calories than they're taking in. The gut bacteria may not be fully ready to process solids and, thin rice cereal though it may be, babies could wind up with a case of diarrhea instead.
Furthermore, introducing solids too soon can put the baby at immediate risk for choking or more long-term consequences like obesity, diabetes, eczema and celiac.
Babies who are 6 months—or even older—don't have to stop exclusively breast- or formula-feeding at the half-year mark. Babies will show they're ready for solids by staring hard at you eating, sticking their fingers and fists in their mouths, sitting up without support, being able to take food off of a fork and not closing their mouths when food is offered.
For babies who are younger? Put the spoon down and slowly walk away.