Last year, the American Association of Pediatrics changed their recommendation about when to start feeding infants solid foods. For two decades, they said parents could start supplementing breast milk and formula with rice cereal or oatmeal between 4 and 6 months. Now, they’re saying babies should not get solids until 6 months. Earlier this week, the New York Times published an article that sat atop the most emailed list about the new recommendation, because a recent Centers for Disease Control study found that some parents are feeding their babies solids as early as 4 weeks.
It’s dangerous to feed a 1-month-old solids—that’s clear, because they can’t hold their heads up, and they’re likely to choke. But does it really matter if you start feeding your baby solids at 4 months instead of 5 or 6 months? The New York Times repeated the claim that “the early introduction of solid foods has also been linked to increased risk of obesity, diabetes, eczema and celiac disease.” But if you look at the actual research, those claims are either blatantly untrue or disputed.
Let’s start with eczema, since the research seems most definitive on that topic. A 2008 study of nearly 5,000 infants published in the journal Pediatrics showed that “No association was found between the time of introduction of solids or the diversity of solids and eczema.”
Things are a bit murkier when it comes to obesity, but it’s still not 100 percent clear. One study found that among breast-fed children, “the timing of solid food introduction was not associated with odds of obesity,” but formula-fed children given solids before 4 months were more likely to be overweight as 3-year-olds. But even that study is careful to mention other studies that show no association between obesity and timing of solids, regardless of how the babies are fed at first.
When it comes to celiac, studies have shown that delaying solids past the seventh month can lead to increased incidence of the disease. As for diabetes, both overfeeding and underfeeding an infant can lead to increased incidence.
There are limitations to all of these studies because you can’t do randomized studies—the strongest kind of study—on babies. So instead of sticking hard and fast to a seemingly arbitrary change from 4 months to 6 months, the best bet would be to consult your pediatrician and to watch for your own baby’s signals. Any mother of an infant knows that each baby develops at an idiosyncratic pace. Watching my 16-week-old daughter flail around with a bunch of her infant pals on a play mat, I noticed that some were holding their big cheeks up with no problem, some still looked like bobble heads, and one particularly advanced little gal was already rolling over from front to back and back again.
So what are the signs that your baby is ready to eat solids? Per a pediatrician in the Times, “When a baby is ready to start eating food, he will put his hands in his mouth, and you will see him actually making chewing motions.” As with many things, first-time parents would do well to just watch their kids closely and use common sense.