The WHAT’S…WHY’S…AND HOW’S OF STARTING SOLIDS!
Let’s do some myth busting and go over the research…
Starting solids is a huge event in the lives of our little breastfeeding babies! Our milk has been the one and only thing that has sustained them all this time and the what, how, when and “I’m stressing! Am I doing this right?! Is my child going to die of malnutrition because she only wants breastmilk?!” questions start to pop up into our already over-loaded minds. We know women who swear by introducing rice cereal early to help them sleep, we have a friend who started her little girl on solids at five months because she “looked hungry” and reached for foods at the dinner table. We have other friends who said their baby was not interested in solids until they were twelve months old! And then we have that other friend who’s doctor told her to start rice cereal or her baby would be iron deficient! So what is normal and how will you know it’s the right time?
First let’s start with the recommendations…
The World Health Organization, Australian Breastfeeding Association, La Leche League International, The Australian National Health and Medical Research Council and the American Academy of Pediatrics, all recommend exclusively breastfeeding (so nothing but breastmilk) until your baby is about six months old.
Read on to find out WHY six months is the guideline from these (and other) organizations around the world…
Gut health and the lining of our baby’s digestive system. Our bodies are pretty amazing things. Up until around 6 months old, babies have an immature gut. What does this mean?! I know, it sounds confusing but basically it means that their digestive system is not yet ready for solids. The cells within their small intestine are “open” (they have spaces between them) which allows whole proteins and pathogens (amongst other macromolecules) to get into their bloodstream and basically create havoc within their little digestive systems! Why does it work this way? Well, simply put our babies are supposed to have this amazing little system set in place because breastmilk can then easily head through these openings and the awesome little antibodies and other important components of breastmilk to be easily available to them. We want breastmilk components to do this…not proteins from solid foods and pathogens.
The risks of our babies taking in less milk while increasing solids. Up until around the first 6 months and continuing towards the 12 month mark, breastmilk continues to meet many nutritional needs (Dewey 2001). If our babies are being filled up on solids too often, too soon and too quickly, some women will notice a decrease in their child breastfeeding and then a decrease in their milk supply. If you notice this is happening or would like to help prevent this just offer the breast first every time, before you give them solids. “Filling them up” on solid foods just to make sure they are eating makes no sense when you look at the important components in breastmilk and the nutritional needs it meets for them.
You may have heard the saying “food before one is just for fun”. The reason that people state this is due to the fact that we know eating solids for the first few months (anywhere from 6-12 months) is more of an exploration, rather than something that is filling up their bellies. You might find that your child LOVES to eat solids and is happy to have you spoon feed them some yoghurt rather than doing it themselves. If so, that’s great! However, do not be worried if your 9 months old is still very much a “boobie baby” and does not have interest in solids. If your doctor is concerned about something in particular, have them test your baby to rule out any deficiencies or problems going on. Breastmilk meets their nutritional needs for much longer than many people realize. Breastmilk is an incredibly nutrient dense food and is constantly changing to meet the needs of your child as they grow. Introducing solids around the 6 months mark is the recommendation, but don’t worry if they are not very interested until they are older.
But…but…wait!! WHAT ABOUT…
“WHAT ABOUT IRON?!”
Healthy, breastfed babies actually have enough iron stores to last until they are at least six months old (Griffin, Abrams 2001). One way to increase your baby’s iron stores is by allowing their cord to stop pulsating before it is cut after they are born. By doing this, research shows that babies will receive approximately 300 mls of extra blood than if the cord was cut straight away which leads to an increase in iron levels within the baby’s body and sufficient iron stores for up to the first twelve months of life (Van Rheenan, Brabin, 2006). Remember too that this is not “delayed” cord clamping. This is the biologically normal approach to how birth happens naturally. Back two hundred years ago our babies were born, we then brought them to our chest, eventually latched them on and then thought, “oh yes”! The placenta has come out and the cord needs to be cut!! This would not have happened immediately after birth and does not happen immediately after the birth of mammals. When an animal is born the mother does eat the placenta and cord but not seconds after the baby is born as it often happens in hospital.
When your baby starts eating solids you can include the introduction of foods that are high in iron. These include:
Meat, liver, eggs, green leafy vegetables, sea vegetables, sweet potatoes and squash, beans and tofu. It is also important to include foods rich in Vitamin C to help with the absorption of iron.
If your doctor is concerned about your child’s iron levels, have them tested! Don’t assume they are low just because your baby is 10 months old and barely eating solids. He might have perfectly normal iron stores, and most likely does if he was a healthy full term baby, had delayed chord clamping, has not had a large amount of cow’s milk products, which can affect iron levels (Ziegler 2011) and has been breastfed the whole time.
“But what about my daughter who is reaching for my food and she is only 4 1/2 months old! Isn’t this a sign?!”
Your child would also reach out for a piece of poop and put it in her mouth! That does not mean she is ready for poop. It means that she has reached the developmental stage of exploring the world around her. Which for babies, happens through touch and taste. It is not a sign that she is ready to eat. The need to explore and the need to eat are two very different things.
“But what about my son who had solids at four months and has no allergies, no eczema, is not obese and is perfect in every way?!”
Just because you start food at four months does not mean that you child is destined to being riddled with eczema, battling obesity and dealing with numerous food allergies. There will always be exceptions to the “rule” or to the research. There are also many children who were formula fed that have no allergies, do not have asthma and are not obese. That is not reason in of itself to discount the importance of waiting until six months to start solids and breastfeeding to natural term (beyond babyhood). There are numerous studies which show that by NOT waiting until six months to introduce solids, your child will have an increased risk of being overweight as an adult (AAP 2012, Wilson 1998, von Kries 1999, Kalies 2005), can decrease your milk supply and can have a negative effect on their iron absorption (Pisacane, 1995).
But what about that new research I heard about which came to the conclusion that starting solids earlier actually prevents allergies?
Three of the four authors actually declared an association with the baby feeding industry! One of the claims that they made was that introducing solids earlier than six months decreased the risk of coeliac when research actually shows that it is the babies who are NOT breastfeeding at the time of introducing gluten that have an increased risk of coeliac. There is just so much conflicting information about this out there and the research about this topic states opposing conclusions! What DO we know? Breastfeeding is the biological norm. Breastfeeding is protective. Food intolerances have to do with gut health and the bacteria we have or do not have within our digestive systems. The best way for our babies to have healthy, optimal functioning digestive systems? Have a belly full of good bacteria. The best way to do this? Breastfeed exclusively for about 6 months and continue for up to 2 years AND LONGER as mother and child are happy to do so.
The article also claimed that introducing solids before six months would decrease the risk of allergies. There is not sufficient evidence to make this statement. We do know that babies do not start to make a more adult type enzyme made to break down foods before about six months. The lining of a baby’s gut is not sealed until around the age of six months. As I mentioned before, this means that the proteins of foods are able to get “through” the lining. Antibodies can then start being produced and start an allergic type response to the foods.
But what about my health care provider who said I should feed my baby because…
“It will help them sleep through the night.” There is NO research to support this. My breastfeeding toddlers would eat a hamburger, breastfeed for 20 minutes and then wake up 2 hours later for another breastfeed. Babies wake to breastfeed for MANY reasons. Filling them up with food will not affect their sleep patterns and may make them wake even more frequently!
“Your baby needs to gain more weight.” If your health care provider is concerned about your baby’s weight gain and their answer is, “Put them on solids.” I HIGHLY suggest finding another provider. If you are breastfeeding find an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) to assess your baby’s intake (nappy/diaper count, weight gain over their life and the percentiles looking at the correct chart for breastfed babies) to look at the WHOLE picture and assess the situation. If baby is dropping percentiles on the chart over time it may or MAY NOT be from the amount of milk she is receiving from her mother. Make sure your doctor and IBCLC are working together to get to the bottom of the problem. Just putting your baby on solids makes no sense as it’s trying to fix the symptom of a possible underlying issue. And remember there may not be an issue at all!
“Your baby needs more nutrients.” No. Just no. Breastmilk provides all the nutrients your baby needs for AT LEAST the first 6 months of life, and for many babies beyond this age! Are there concerns? Have their levels tested by the doctor, don’t just fill them up on an over-processed cereal filled with synthetic vitamins and minerals.
So now that I’ve waited until six months, what should I feed my baby? And what is this thing called, “Baby Led Weaning“?
1. Anything fermented! Sauerkraut was one of my youngest boy’s favourite first foods! It is excellent for their gut health.
2. Cultured dairy! As long as your child is not showing any signs of food intolerance or allergies to dairy, can give your baby aged six months and up unsweetened cultured dairy products such as yoghurt or milk kefir. Give your baby a spoon and let them eat the yoghurt themselves! They love doing this and might actually get a bit in their mouth. 🙂
3. Meat! Or a vegetarian alternative; fermented tofu (tempeh), beans or legumes.
4. Veggies lightly steamed and fruit! Babies LOVE to feed themselves and are very capable of doing so from 6 months old. You can start with things that are easy for them to pick up but soft. Try avocado cut into pieces or banana. You can steam and mash things that need to be cooked or you can do “baby led weaning” which you can read about HERE! Baby led weaning is really easy for the parents (no need to make separate special meals for your baby) and is great for your baby’s development as they are using fine motor skills when eating themselves and also puts them in charge of eating, not the person with the spoon.
Are you worried about your breastfed baby or toddler who is getting older but has NO INTEREST AT ALL in eating?! Click here to read my article, MY KID WON’T EAT!