A new study notes that exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months might not be as useful as previously thought. According to the study, published in the British Medical Journal, the team said breastfed babies may benefit from being given solid food earlier than six months of age. Current breastfeeding guidelines from the World Health Organization say that weaning should occur at six months, but the new study from a University College London (UCL) team of researchers say weaning could happen as early as four months. Why the switch? The researchers suggest that later weaning may put your baby at an increased risk for food allergies and iron deficiency levels. The researchers also suggest that babies not exposed to solids before six months may not develop the taste for green leafy vegetables. So should you listen to this study and wean your baby early? Keep reading to find out what pediatrician Dr. Alan Greene and other organizations have to say.
A Pediatrician’s Take
We decided to get Dr. Alan Greene’s opinion on this new study and he noted that starting solids early or not primarily rests on if you formula feed or breastfeed. Greene says, “My take is that breast fed kids who are already getting complex nutrition in human milk and exposure to lots of flavors, there is no rush to start foods. Formula fed kids who are getting simple flavors and nutrition should be encouraged to eat solids as soon as the baby is showing interest. I would typically say this time period is around four months.” So, according to Dr. Greene, exclusively breastfed babies are already being exposed to the proper nutrients and flavors and other research supports this as well. On the flip side, starting solids at around four months, or when your baby shows interest, may be more useful for formula-fed babies.
Now, if you’re worried about your baby not developing a taste for veggies, due to breast milk, this shouldn’t be a major concern. Studies in the past have already shown that mothers pass many unique flavors on to their babies via breast milk. In fact, research even shows that babies develop taste preferences while still in the womb! So, if you, the mama, is eating a nice varied diet, your baby is going to learn about flavors no matter if solids are introduced early or not.
Problems with Early Weaning
Other reports note that if you start solids early, you may have problems other than iron deficiency to worry about. For example, Ask Dr. Sears notes, “An infant’s gut is not ready for solid foods until around six months of age.” The Dr. Sears advice site goes on to say that babies who get solids too soon may be more at risk for allergies and damage to the intestines, weight loss, blood in the stool, and malnutrition. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends introducing solids at 6 months of age, although they do note that opinions vary. Thus, the AAP also says that parents with food allergies should wait until their baby is at least six months of age to serve solids to avoid food allergies, but if a parent has zero food allergies a baby could safely try solids after four months, and when she’s showing interest. The Royal College of Midwives doesn’t support this new study, saying the study simply, “Plays into the hands of the baby-food industry which has failed to support the six-month exclusive breastfeeding policy in the UK.” Further, a Department of Health spokeswoman said:
“Breast milk provides all the nutrients a baby needs up to six months of age and we recommend exclusive breastfeeding for this time. Mothers who wish to introduce solids before six months should always talk to health professionals first.”
Should you wean early?
Right now, this new study shows that delayed solids might result in an iron deficiency, but you have to keep in mind, that the iron in breast milk is easily absorbed by babies plus, most American formulas are already iron fortified. Dr. Greene also notes, “Breast milk is clearly beneficial for babies in many ways. Basically the study concluded that delaying solid foods could result in iron deficiency. I would recommend breastfeeding for a year if possible or as long as possible. Then after that, as long after as both the mom and baby feel appropriate.”
Breast milk offers untold health benefits for your baby. You should always discuss your baby’s diet plan with your pediatrician, but overall, current research, and most child health organizations say you can feed your baby breast milk exclusively and safely for the first six months.