Child development experts advise parents not to introduce solid foods, such
as baby cereal, into an infant's diet until the infant is at least 4 to 6 months
old. However, new research suggests that about 40% of parents aren't heeding
this advice and are giving their babies solid food much sooner.
The researchers also found that formula-fed infants were much more likely to
be given solid foods too early than were breast-fed infants.
"Health authorities do advise parents to wait until after 4 months because
infants aren't developmentally ready to eat solid foods before then," explained
the study's senior author, Kelley Scanlon, an epidemiologist at the division of
nutrition, physical activity and obesity at the US Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.
Scanlon said there are a number of other reasons why experts don't recommend
early feeding. One is that the early introduction of solid foods has been linked
to a shorter duration of breast-feeding. Early solid food consumption has also
been linked to the development of chronic conditions, such as childhood obesity,
celiac disease, diabetes and eczema, according to background information in the
To see how often the expert recommendations on solid foods are followed,
Scanlon and her colleagues reviewed data provided by more than 1 300 mothers
The investigators found that 40% of mothers introduced solid foods before
their infants were 4 months old. About 24% of exclusively breast-feeding moms
introduced early solid food, while close to 53% of formula-fed babies were given
solid foods early on.
Slightly more than 50% of babies that were fed both breast milk and formula
were introduced to solid foods before 4 months.
Reasons cited by the moms included, "My baby was old enough," "My baby seemed
hungry," "I wanted to feed my baby something in addition to breast milk or
formula," "My baby wanted the food I ate," "A doctor or other health care
professional said my baby should begin eating solid food," or "It would help my
baby sleep longer at night," according to the study.
Scanlon said that mothers who formula-fed their babies were more likely to
report having a health care provider tell them that solid foods before 4 months
That suggests that there's a real need for doctors and other health care
providers "to provide accurate and clear information," Scanlon said. These
experts "can help parents better understand their babies' cues for feeding," she
said. "A baby who's crying a lot isn't always hungry."
The researchers also found that mothers who introduced solid foods earlier
were more likely to be younger, unmarried, have less education and be
participating in government food programmes for women, infants and children.
Dr Ruby Roy, an attending physician at La Rabida Children's Hospital in
Chicago, said she wasn't surprised by the study's findings. "A lot of these
parents say that at 3 months, their children are more hungry. And, that's true.
There's usually a growth spurt at 3 months, so increasing breast-feeding or the
amount of formula is appropriate," said Roy.
Roy said she doesn't tell parents to wait for a specific age, but rather to
look for signs that the baby is ready for solid foods. "Some children will be
ready at 6 months, while others are fine at 5 months and 2 weeks, so instead of
an absolute rule, I explain that they're waiting for the baby to be ready," she
According to Roy, babies aren't ready for solids until they can sit up by
themselves when they're well-supported and when they've lost what's known as the
"tongue thrust" reflex. If you try to feed your baby solid foods on a spoon and
your baby pushes the food out with his or her tongue, your baby isn't ready for
solids yet, Roy said.
Roy and Scanlon agreed that parents shouldn't try to work around this reflex
by adding baby cereal to bottles.
"Solid foods are not intrinsically better or more calorically dense than
breast milk or formula," said Roy. And she added, "Solid foods can harm kids
when started too early."
Learn more about the right time to introduce solid foods to infants from the
Academy of Pediatrics.