Discovering a child's favorite foods can be a particularly fun milestone for parents, but shouldn't be attempted before the child is ready. Breastmilk and formula provide infants with necessary nutrients that they can miss out on by eating the wrong things. According to a new study, many babies are eating solid foods too soon, and the reasons why parents are making the transition point to a lack of education.
The study, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, found that more than half of babies in the U.S. are eating "complementary foods" — think anything other than breastmilk and/or formula — well before they should be. Researchers with the Centers for Disease Control evaluated six years of data collected from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey pertaining to 1,482 babies aged 6 to 36 months, according to The Stir. The survey included questions on when infants were first fed complementary foods, which revealed that just 32.6 percent of babies were fed these foods at the appropriate time.
The American Academy of Pediatrics suggested that children first eat solid foods when they are around 6 months old. However, 16.3 percent of infants included in the study were introduced to solid foods before they were 4 months old and 38.3 percent between 4 months old and 5 months old. Additionally, babies who were not breastfed tended to receive complementary foods earlier than those who were.
While a month or two may not seem like that much of a difference, scientists determined that the choice to introduce foods this early can have negative health consequences for children. The study's lead researcher Chloe M. Barrera, MPH, Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity, said in a statement that proper timing is key:
Introducing babies to complementary foods too early can cause them to miss out on important nutrients that come from breast milk and infant formula. Conversely, introducing them to complementary foods too late has been associated with micronutrient deficiencies, allergies, and poorer diets later in life.
There are a number of guidelines available to parents that explain when to introduce solid foods, but they point to signs of "readiness" instead of specific timeframes. Additionally, more time-specific recommendations pertaining to solid foods have changed a lot in the past few decades, according to Science Daily. Experts in the 1950s recommended introducing solid foods as early as three months, but pushed it back to four months in the 1970s. The current recommendation of six months didn't come about until the 1990s, meaning that millennial parents may be getting incorrect advice from their own parents. Vague recommendations and generational differences can lead to confusion for parents.
A similar study from 2013, published in Pediatrics, also found that parents were turning to complementary foods too soon. Study co-author Kelley Scanlon, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told USA Today that understanding parents' motivations to introduce foods early is key, and while her findings "don't offer a full understanding why," they do give us some insight.
The Cleveland Clinic's report on the study explained why feeding solid food early is tempting to parents, with moms citing reasons such as, "My baby was old enough," and, "It would help my baby sleep longer at night," and desires to supplement breastmilk and formula. Additionally, they, too, pointed to an abundance of information from many sources that could be conflicting.
Barra told The Stir that the study was a first step in finding ways to educate parents about how to best provide their children with proper nutrients:
Efforts to support caregivers, families, and healthcare providers may be needed to ensure that U.S. children are achieving recommendations on the timing of food introduction. Inclusion of children under two in the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans may promote consistent messaging of when children should be introduced to complementary foods.
Sorting through loads of information can be difficult, but the benefits of proper child nutrition outweigh the costs of a little extra research. Hopefully, findings like these will help well-intending parents to make informed decisions and hold off on adding solid foods until their children are truly ready.
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