There’s still lots of confusion out there with regards to when the best time is to start solids. Some parents are being instructed to start as soon as their baby shows interest in food or other signs of readiness, others go strictly by age, and still others advise that solids aren’t even that important to start with before one year of age! The range that I see from most new parents is generally within the 4-6 month range.
But is that in line with the most updated recommendations?
Let’s dive in.
What the health experts say
Regulatory bodies like the World Health Organization, Health Canada and the American Academy of Pediatrics all agree – it’s best to wait until your baby is around six months of age before offering any food other than breastmilk. This means…no cereal in the bottle, no purees, no finger foods, no non-milk beverages…nada.
Why do we say vague descriptions like “around” 6 months?
Well, truth be told..it’s less about age and more about when your baby shows all the developmental signs of readiness. Just for quick reference, the developmental signs of readiness to start solids include:
- The ability to sit in an upright position independently
- Good head and neck control
- Ability to reach for objects and brings it to their mouth with precision
- Showing interest in food!
- Diminished tongue thrust reflex
- Ability to close lips around a spoon, hold food in their mouth (at least partially) and swallow.
Many times, babies show one or a couple of the signs of readiness…and we’re off to the races! But again, we want to wait until all of these signs are present for safe, healthy and effective feeding. And most usually, these signs emerge around 6 months of age (give or take a couple weeks). For premature babies, it may take even longer for these signs to emerge so again, waiting and starting when they’re ready vs. when you’re eager to start them is always best.
P.S. If you want a checklist to post on your fridge with the developmental signs of readiness and a brief explanation of each, click here to download!
Risks of starting solids too early
Many people (including many doctors), still believe that introducing solids before significantly before 6 months of age is appropriate and even encouraged, thinking it will help with things like sleep, growth, and satisfying the interest in food your baby is showing.
Guess what? Not only is this not true… but too early of an introduction can be associated with negative risks!
Starting solids before 6 months can increase the risk of choking
If your baby is not meeting the developmental signs of readiness (scroll down further to read what they are), which is more likely if you’re offering solids before 6 months of age, then that means they are at an increased risk of choking. Not being able to sit up independently and accept and manipulate food on the tongue, means they are much more likely to have food lodged in their airway in a choking incident.
Early introduction of solids can cause babies to drink less than the recommended amount of breastmilk/formula
Sometimes I hear of doctors recommending not only starting solids too early, but starting them on 3 meals a day right from the start! Even with only 1-2 meals a day, you may be risking that your baby begins to decrease the amount of milk they’re drinking, putting them at risk for dehydration and not getting enough of the beneficial nutrients, antibodies, probiotics and a myriad of other nutritional benefits that breastmilk/formula provides.
Starting solids around 3 or 4 months can lead to an increased risk of obesity, and diabetes.
Though the reason isn’t 100% clear as to why this is the case, it could be that too early of an introduction to solids is linked to earlier cessation of breastfeeding (which is linked with higher BMI). It could be that babies are overfed when introduced to purees, and because their tongue thrust reflex is still there or parents are misreading hunger and fullness cues, the spoon is being forced into their mouth in effort to “get them to eat”. It could be that there are changes in the gut microbiome when starting solids early or for some other yet to be determined reason.
Introduction of solids at 4 months or younger shows increased risk of digestive issues and eczema
Your baby’s immune and digestive system isn’t fully equipped to properly process solid food and all the new proteins, fat and carbohydrates that come with it. Sometimes this can cause digestive issues such as increased gas, constipation or upset stomach. Babies this age also have a somewhat “leaky gut”, meaning large proteins from food can pass through their gut lining easily and cause allergic reactions such as eczema.
Baby won’t be developmentally ready to eat non-liquid food
Research shows that babies aren’t developmentally ready to manage semi-solid or solid food (and even go from a suck to a suckle) until at least 6 months of age.
Now, the only exception to introducing solids around 4 months is for babies who have a high risk of developing a food allergy due to family history. In certain cases, your doctor may advise you to introduce an allergenic food in very small amounts to your baby to build up tolerance. Note though, this doesn’t mean you’re introducing all solids or full meals. Just enough of the allergenic food for multiple exposures.
What about waiting longer than 6 months?
Research shows that waiting longer than around 6 months to start on solids also may have some negative side effects. We often hear the phrase “Food before one is just for fun”…but really, it’s for much more than that and introducing a variety of textures and flavours to babies early on (meaning again, when they show the developmental signs of readiness) is very important for proper development.
Delayed solid introduction increases the risk of iron deficiency in breastfed babies
It’s well known that by around 6 months of age, babies need supplemental iron from food to start replenishing their depleting iron stores. For breastfed babies especially, delaying the introduction of solids can lead to iron deficiency as breastmilk doesn’t contain enough iron to meet their needs. Introducing high iron foods twice a day give babies the supplemental iron they need!
Waiting to introduce or regularly offer solids can lead to delays in oral motor function
Babies introduced to multiple textures early and often help your baby develop jaw strength, learn how to take bites, use their tongue to manipulate food, chew it, etc. The longer they have been on finger foods and lumpy textures, the more practice they get, and the more practice they get, the stronger and more advanced their oral motor movements.
Waiting will increase the risk of developing an aversion to solid food (especially with a variety of texture)
Waiting to introduce solids also means your baby isn’t accustomed to food in their mouth, will miss out on the sensory experience of food and their gag reflex will be very strong, again, causing more of an aversion to food. Whether they get a lot of that food in or not, just playing with and getting exposed to the food, it’s very beneficial. In fact, research shows that babies who haven’t been introduced to various textures or lumpy purees by 9 months are at greater risk for picky eating and feeding problems at age 7 than those kids who were fed lumpy textures between 6 and 9 months of age.
Delaying the introduction of allergenic foods past 6 months increases risk of allergy development
In 2019, the Canadian Pediatric Society updated their guidelines to recommend introducing the common allergens as close to 6 months as possible based on a revealing study that showed earlier introduction of peanuts to high-risk infants helped prevent the development of peanut allergy. As mentioned above, introduction at 4 months may be the protocol your doctor gives you based on your baby’s allergy risk, but most other babies should be introduced around 6 months and not much later.
All in all, always go by this rule:
Go off of what your baby can DO versus how old they are
The right time might be just after 5 months for some or maybe it’s at 7 months for others. Keep in mind that with preemies or having specific instructions from your doctor due to a medical reason may mean that you start earlier/later. Although, these are exceptions.
And if you’re unsure about how to prepare your baby for solids, what types of food to offer, how to offer them and how to feed in a way to raise an adventurous eater, you need to check out the Baby Led Feeding Online Course! Trying a random thing here or there or trying to piece together the all the misinformation found on the internet is not only wasting time, but can cause undue stress. For a step-by-step plan with videos, recipes and more, the course will 100% help!