This article was contributed by fan-favorite, Jenni Allen.
Having a child is an exciting experience. As they grow month to month, it is fun to watch them explore new things and learn about the world around them. As a parent, there is nothing better than experiencing all your child’s “firsts;” their first laugh, the first time they roll over, the first time they balance sitting—to name a few.
One of those “firsts” is beginning table foods. Do you know someone who has started their baby on rice cereal, baby oatmeal or purees at 4 months? Have people asked you how long you plan on breastfeeding for or when you plan on introducing table foods to your baby?
You’ll get many questions throughout your parenting career about the choices you need to make and possibly some backlash for the way you have chosen to do things. Many people will recommend the way they did it. One of the common misguided suggestions given, albeit I’m sure well-meaning, is when to begin solid foods with your infant.
But, did you know that many people are introducing solid foods to their baby too early and it can cause an impact on their baby’s health?
What Do The Experts Say?
We all know breastfeeding is beneficial to babies’ growth, development and in helping them gain the nutrition and antibodies necessary in infancy.
In recent years, many people have started solids after four months; however, research shows that babies should be exclusively breastfed for at least 6 months and solid foods or additional liquids should not be introduced before six months old.
The confusion in timing may be attributed to the American Academy of Pediatrics 1997 recommendation of starting complementary solid foods between four and six months of age. The AAP has since updated their recommendation in 2005 since “considerable advances have occurred in recent years in the scientific knowledge of the benefits of breastfeeding, the mechanisms underlying these benefits, and in the clinical management of breastfeeding. [The new statement of waiting until six months of age] reflects this newer knowledge and the supporting publications.” (Gartner, 2005)
However, the confusion persists and many parents are feeding their children foods once they are four months old. The following organizations each publicly recommend not starting complementary solid foods until after the baby is six months old:
The World Health Organization (WHO) states “Infants should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life to achieve optimal growth, development and health.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics also encourages “exclusive breastfeeding for about six months, followed by continued breastfeeding as complementary foods are introduced…”
The National Health and Medical Research Council explains that “[exclusive breastfeeding] around six months should be regarded as a population recommendation” and that introducing solid foods earlier can lead to several problems.
The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) reiterates “almost all babies should be breastfed or receive human milk exclusively for approximately six months.”
The American Public Health Association (APHA) says “All major health authorities now recommend that infants receive no other food or drink besides breast milk for the first 6 months of life.”
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) encorages “initiation of breastfeeding within the first hour after the birth; exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months…”
Why Exclusively Breastfeed?
I’m not going to lie. In the beginning, breastfeeding can be challenging. And if you run into any problems, many people will suggest switching to formula because it will be “easier.” But unless there is a medical reason to switch, breastfeeding really is best for your baby and you. UNICEF states,
“Breastfeeding has an extraordinary range of benefits. It has profound impact on a child’s survival, health, nutrition and development.”
Breastfeeding also provides antibodies, protects against: ear, respiratory tract, and gastrointestinal tract infections; reduces the risk of asthma, allergies, obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, and childhood cancers; and decreases the risk of SIDS. Breastmilk helps your baby’s digestive system work smoothly, stimulates proper growth of the mouth and jaw and makes it less likely that they will need orthodontic treatment.
If you exclusively breastfeed for the first six months, you ensure good health for your baby’s first year of life. Some research has also shown that breastfed children have higher intelligence and that the fat in breastmilk helps their eyes work better. On top of all of the health benefits, nursing also provides comfort and helps your baby bond with you while they are adjusting to life outside of you.
Often, we focus on the benefits of breastfeeding for your baby, but did you know that it also is advantageous for you too, mama?
It is beneficial for your breastfeeding journey to latch within the first hour, but did you know that breastfeeding prevents postpartum hemorrhage? Breastfeeding also reduces your risk of postpartum depression (PPD) as well as type 2 diabetes, breast cancer, uterine cancer, ovarian cancer, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease. Breastfeeding on demand also helps you maintain and build your milk supply and encourages weight loss.
Breastfeeding can act as a natural contraceptive as well when all of the ecological standards are followed. If your period has not yet returned, it is a 98% effective contraceptive method. But, if you definitely don’t want to be pregnant right away, you should still use a backup method, such as some form of the Fertility Awareness Method.
What Is Virgin Gut Anyway?
The bacteria in your gut affects many aspects of your life and keeps you healthy. “The human fetus is sterile in utero and is colonized by microbes during its passage through the birth canal.” (Reinhardt 2009) The bacteria passed from mom to baby during birth and during breastfeeding is beneficial to baby’s gut microbiota.
Why does this matter? Well, their immature digestive systems are sometimes referred to as “open” which means “the spaces between the cells of the small intestine will allow large molecules to pass directly into their bloodstream.” (Alphaparent 2015) The reasoning is to allow the antibodies in breastmilk to pass into the bloodstream quickly and effectively. However, this allows anything to easily pass through including allergy-triggering proteins and disease-causing pathogens from other foods.
A “virgin” gut means that your baby has not had any other source of food other than breastmilk.
In a study regarding Lactation and Neonatal Nutrition they explained,
“Human milk is complex and has a host of non-nutritive functions including protection against infection, reducing inflammation, promoting intestinal, immune and cognitive development, and stimulating establishment of the unique gut microbiome of the breastfed infant.”
They also acknowledged that,
“Most studies have focused on comparing human milk and formula. However, by 6 months of age, most infants are receiving both maternal milk and infant formula. How this combined feeding strategy impacts resistance of the infant to infection and other aspects of development is virtually unknown.” (Neville 2012)
This reaffirms that breastmilk is best for your baby and to breastfeed exclusively. It also sheds light on how an increasing number of parents choose to supplement with formula for some feedings. Unless it is medically necessary, it is not recommended since at this time, researchers aren’t sure how this affects baby’s development. Additionally, supplementing for some feedings can also cause issues with your milk supply.
What does this mean to you? Well, “you are in control of your baby’s gut microbiome since “both diet (breastfeeding vs. formula feeding) and mode of delivery of the infant (vaginal vs. Caesarean) are significant early determinants of the kinds and quantities of microbes that colonize the neonatal intestines.” (Neville 2012)
Why does your baby’s gut matter? According to Heathline, healthy gut bacteria helps your baby digest the sugars in breastmilk that are important for growth. It also digests fiber which may help prevent unhealthy weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Gut bacteria helps you respond better to infection, helps control brain health and affects heart health.
If you have a healthy gut, your likelihood of intestinal diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) decrease. In addition, it also prevents leaky gut syndrome and prevents disease-causing bacteria from sticking to the intestinal wall.
One of the ways Healthline advises to increase the healthy bacteria in one’s gut is by breastfeeding: “Breastfeeding is very important for the development of the gut microbiome. Children who are breastfed for at least six months have more beneficial Bifidobacteria than those who are bottle-fed.” Although, even if you do formula feed, complementary food should still not be introduced prior to six months.
Food Before 6 Months Is Risky
Now that we understand the benefits of breastfeeding and keeping a “virgin” gut until baby is ready to start complementary foods, what are the risks of introducing foods too early?
- Decrease in mom’s milk supply from less time spent on breast
- If tongue-extrusion reflex is strong, infant may reject the spoon
- Shortened lactational amenorrhea (breastfeeding as a contraceptive)
- Increased risk of ear, respiratory tract and gastrointestinal tract infection (such as otitis media and pneumonia)
- Increased risk of food allergies
- Exposure to pathogens present in foods can cause diarrhea
So, When Is Baby Ready For Solids?
Along with your baby being six months old, there are a few other developmental milestones your baby should reach before starting solid foods. Your baby should be able to sit—unsupported—for at least one minute, and they can’t be leaning on toys or their arms for balance. Baby’s have a tongue thrust reflex where they push hard objects out of their mouths with their tongue to prevent choking. If you touch your baby’s lip and they stick their tongue out every time, then they still have this reflex.
Your child should also be developing the “pincer” grasp which means they can pick up foo with their thumb and pointer finger. Often times, when baby’s are first starting, they usually scoop food up instead. The pincer grasp is usually not mastered until 9 or 10 months and so it is ok if your baby doesn’t do it all the time. Lastly, your baby should have an interest in food.
Researchers and health professionals agree that it is best to wait until a baby’s digestive system can better handle foods and that breastmilk gives babies all the nutrition they need until they are six months old. Plus, waiting until your baby is developmentally ready to begin solid foods will impact their health for the rest of their lives. So, what is waiting two more months?
Sources: WHO, AAP, AAFP, APHA, UNICEF, La Leche League International, Johns Hopkins Medicine, Australian Breastfeeding Association, Cochrane Library, Evidence Report Technology Assessment, ABR, Maternal and Child Health Journal, Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition, Journal of Pediatrics