Being a new parent is a spectacularly scary endeavor. There are millions of things we can do and/or fail to do to mess up our kids, and parenting in the Internet Age means we get to constantly hear about all of the terrible ways we’re failing as mothers and fathers. CNN Health wants you to know that if your kid sees a TV on before the age of ten, her brain will turn into actual toxic sludge! The mommy message boards are all abuzz about vaccinations! Your Aunt Sally left you a message on Facebook to tell you about the amber teething necklace she’s sending you in the mail so that your poor baby can FINALLY get some RELIEF and she can’t BELIEVE you haven’t tried this ALREADY. So listen up, Mommyish! I am going to do science at you, so that you have not just the latest information, but the best information. With three years of science teaching and a bachelor's degree in zoology from Michigan State University under my belt (not to mention dropping out of the excellent cell biology PhD program at UW-Madison), as well as a pair of screaming eight-month-olds at home, I get where you're coming from when you want answers - and I'll help you find the right ones.
So, What's The Deal With When To Start Solid Foods?
I have eight-month-old twins, and I dearly understand the desire not only to have answers to questions about the business of bringing up baby, but to have them fast - via an e-consult with Dr. Google - and to turn them into solutions. But I’m also a scientist (or an ex-scientist, I suppose) and unfortunately, while the rumor that 90% of the Internet is porn isn’t true - I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that 90% of the Internet is pure, unadulterated crap. Sure, a lot of that crap has been artistically arranged and surrounded by scented candles in order to enhance the effect – but it’s crap nonetheless.
Don’t feel bad if you’ve found yourself buying into some of these things. I know smart women, women with years of education, women with PhDs in science and MDs and all kinds of other credential-flavored alphabet soup, who have been suckered into one Latest and Greatest Thing or another. Who can blame them? You can have all the training in the world on how to check sources, dig into journal articles, and evaluate bias, but chances are that all of that is going to fly out the window when your infant hasn’t slept for more than thirty-seven seconds at a time for a week running and she’s screaming bloody murder in your ear while you frantically Google every possible string of words related to sleep regression that you can think of.
The latest thing to draw my ire attention is this phrase: “Food before one is just for fun.” I’ve seen it pop up here and there on the Internet while (yes, I admit it) continuing to get advice from the hapless Dr. Google about every minuscule thing my kids do. I’ve had it thrown at me in person a couple of times by well-meaning people who were giving me the side-eye while I spooned that horror of horrors – puréed baby food – into the gaping maws of my poor, unsuspecting children.
I understand to some extent where this sentiment comes from, and I think there are two prevailing ideas behind it: one relevant, and one reactionary. The first one is the desire to comfort those people whose babies are just not that into food. What they’re trying to say is, don’t panic when your kid smears more food into his hair than he gets in his mouth; he’s still getting most of his nutrition from breast milk or formula. Make sure he’s still going through diapers as usual, and you can be pretty sure he’s not wasting away. Sure, I still don’t agree entirely with the phrase itself – food before one is also for supplementing vitamins and minerals, learning about textures, and introducing foreign substances to the gut as well as fun – but I think it’s a good idea to reassure parents that they are not, in fact, starving their children just because those children enjoy finger-painting with mashed banana more than they like feeding themselves mashed banana. Have you tried it? Finger painting with banana is pretty terrific.
I suspect the other piece of the puzzle comes as a reaction out of the lactivist corner against those who don’t want to do prolonged nursing. I am 110% pro-breastfeeding for women who want to breastfeed; as for my own boob-related street cred, my twins are still mostly breastfed minus a supplementary bottle at bedtime, by which point in the day my supply has hit rock bottom. Yes, there are people who think that nursing until age two is “weird” or “creepy”, and those people are wrong. But the people who think that it’s imperative are also wrong. And the people who are waiting until age one or later to even start solid foods with their kids? They’re way, way wrong.
There are a lot of important reasons to start on solids with infants around six months of age. Six-month-olds need about 11 milligrams of iron every day, and coincidentally, six months is around the time the needle on their little bodies’ iron-storage gauges hit “E”. If you’re breastfeeding, you can expect about 0.3 milligrams of iron in every liter of milk your kid drinks, and unless you are secretly a Holstein, you are probably not producing thirty-plus liters of milk on the daily. The good news is that the iron in breast milk is more bioavailable than what’s in food or formula (meaning your baby can absorb it more easily), so the deficiency isn’t quite as severe as it sounds – it’s just not bioavailable enough to make up a thirty-fold difference. I’m a Science Mom, not a Math Mom, but I have it on good authority that a thirty-fold difference is, like, a lot.
And iron deficiency means more to a baby’s health than a little bit of pallor and tiredness. Not getting enough iron as an infant can have long-lasting consequences for a child’s cognitive development later in life, too. Kids who are iron deficient as babies continue to have problems with motor skills and emotional development as they grow up. Maybe we should change the saying to, “Food before one is just for fun (in elementary school)”.
Mineral and micronutrient deficiency is the main deal-breaker when it comes to holding off on solid foods for infants, but there are other reasons, too. For one thing, although prior American Academy of Pediatrics had recommended holding off on introducing food until six months of age, recent research has suggested that missing the four-to-six-month window increases the risk that a baby will develop childhood food allergies. (Waiting until six months, on the other hand, is correlated with a reduced chance for ear infections and gastrointestinal illness, as well as lowered risk for diabetes later in life. It’s a trade-off, but I’d rather deal with a whole lot of poopsplosions now if it means less of a chance I have to worry about a peanut passing into the same ZIP code as my children later on down the road.) Evidence also suggests that kids who wait too long to start solid foods have more problems with varying textures and food aversion down the line. And not just at age two, when – let’s face it – 99.9% of kids are going to throw the organic, home-cooked meal you made for them right back in your face and scream until you get out the chicken nuggets; even at age seven, these kids were still more likely to be picky eaters and refuse fruits and vegetables than their peers.
Of course, everyone is different. You may have so much iron in your breast milk that you need to install a water softener in each boob; my little snowflakes may still be turning up their noses at salads at age twenty-five despite being introduced to solids by six months. It’s important to do what’s right for your family, but it’s also important to base your decisions about what “right” means for you on solid scientific evidence and not just a gut feeling – at least if you want to keep your baby’s gut feeling healthy. Resist the urge to ask Dr. Google, check out the actual sources that Kellymom cites instead of just reading cherrypicked quotes (and make a note of how many decades ago those cited studies were done), and if you’re worried – talk to your pediatrician.
And for those who tell you that they’re not going to start their baby on solid foods till age one, because breast is just plain best and the WHO or AAP or NFL or whoever suggest nursing until the baby turns two – ask them what those organizations say about when to start complementary foods. Hint: the word “timely” comes into play.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go use Google Image Search to obsessively compare pictures to this tiny splotch on my baby’s ass.