The debate centers around the best time to introduce solid food to infants. Most medical organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization and the European Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition recommend the introduction of solid foods sometime between the fourth and sixth month. All are in agreement that solid foods before the fourth month can predispose babies to gastrointestinal problems and allergies and that delaying introduction of solid food after six months may result in baby not getting all the nutrients he or she needs.
These recommendations about when to begin solid food are completely in accord with my own, as outlined in The Nourishing Traditions Book of Baby & Child Care. (As for what to give baby, I have very grave concerns about the conventional recommendations.)
A very mature baby is ready for some solid food at four months while a smaller, less mature baby may not be ready until six months. My own four children were all fast-growing babies who were more than ready for some solid food at four months. In fact, as soon as I introduced some pureed food, they became less fussy, went longer between feedings and slept better through the night. And it was a great relief to sleep through the night myself and settle into a better routine. Of course we continued the nursing—which in my case was supplemented with a raw milk formula because my own supply was very limited. (You can read about my troubles with breastfeeding here.)
In the online debate, many objected to giving any solid food before six months and some argued that solid food should be delayed as long as possible (in other words, exclusive breastfeeding). Some felt that baby could get everything he needed from breastmilk alone, even past the one-year mark; one mother, recognizing the research showing that babies need more iron than mom can supply after six months, and that the mineral levels in mom’s breastmilk decline over time, felt the problem could be solved by letting baby get his minerals by playing in the dirt! Others cited “lack of interest in food” in their babies, often describing how little food got into baby’s mouth when they practiced baby-led weaning (more on this in a later blog). Many moms agreed with the statement “Food before one is just for fun.”
In questions of this importance, our first step is to look as the practices of traditional peoples—and then to see whether they marry with what modern science has to tell us. We have two studies that provide us with valuable information. One is a survey of childbirth and breastfeeding practices in one hundred eighty-six non-industrial cultures. The main focus of the study was maternal bonding traditions, but the authors also looked at feeding practices. They were surprised to find that most cultures began weaning at six months or earlier. In fact, in one-third of the cultures, solid food was given before one month of age!
“Contrary to the expectation of a prolonged period of breast-milk as the sole source of infant nutrition, solid foods were introduced before one month of age in one-third of the cultures, at between one and six months in another third, and was postponed more than six months for only one-third.”
A more recent survey looked at the practices in one hundred thirteen nonindustrial populations from around the world. They found that more than half the cultures introduced solid foods before six months, with five to six months being the most common timeframe. Breastfeeding continued for anywhere from ten to twenty-nine months.
Some of the online comments indicated that our advocacy of solid foods by six months was proof of our “opposition” to breastfeeding. Nothing could be further from the truth—the solid foods are in addition to breast milk (or homemade formula when necessary). The combination of solid food plus breast milk continues for many months.
By the way, this is exactly what we see in the animal world. Baby animals breastfeed exclusively only for a short period of time—just a month or so in the case of cows and pigs—and then get nourished with a combination of solid foods plus breastmilk for a much longer period.
The key reason given for the introduction of solid food by six months is the iron status of the baby. Although mother’s breastmilk contains lactoferrin, which helps the baby absorb 100 per cent of the iron in her milk, iron content is generally low. One explanation for this is that baby needs more zinc than iron during the first few months of life, and breastmilk is high in zinc. Baby should also get a good supply of iron in the cord blood, but the normal turnover for red blood cells is four months. By six months, iron deficiency is a distinct possibility in the exclusively breastfed baby. In fact, mineral levels start to decline in mother’s breast milk almost from birth and continue after the six-month mark. This study showed a decrease in zinc, copper and potassium. And this study documented a decline in zinc and copper over time.
What about the argument that allergies can be avoided by delaying solid food. A recent review found that where the risk of allergy is a key consideration, currently available research suggests that introducing solids at four to six months may result in the lowest allergy risk. “When all aspects of health are taken into account, the recommended duration of exclusive breastfeeding and age of introduction of solids were confirmed to be 6 months, but no later.”
Other moms insisted that baby’s gut is too permeable for solid food at four months, or even much later. We asked Natasha Campbell-McBride for her opinion on this—remember that Dr. Natasha is one of the world’s experts on gut permeability. Her reply: “The majority of babies are ready to be weaned by six months, but many babies are ready earlier–they start getting hungry because they don’t get enough from the mother’s milk. To add formula to those babies is not a good idea, it is much better to start adding real foods [although] no grains, beans or any other starchy and difficult-to-digest plants. Start according to the New Baby diet on my website and in my book. Animal foods–meat stock, meats, fish, eggs and fermented raw dairy (from proper milk) should be introduced, as well as cooked vegetable and some freshly pressed juices from raw veg and fruit. Gradually! The gut wall of babies is permeable for a reason, it is necessary to develop oral tolerance of a plethora of antigens from the environment. Introducing foods during that time ensures that the child develops tolerance and can eat natural food without reacting with allergies.” (I’m not sure I agree about the juices, but in everything else, Dr. Natasha and I are in accord.)
In closing, I really must address the assertion that “food before one is just for fun.” There is no age at which baby is growing faster—and forming more connections in her brain—than the age from zero to one. This is not the time to be casual about feeding your baby—because food before one matters a ton! The way you feed baby—when and what and how—will make all the difference in her future health, appearance and intelligence. It’s very clear from both tradition and science that most babies should receive solid food by age six months. The what and the how will be the subject of subsequent blogs.
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