According to the World Health Organization (WHO), human infants should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life. Complimentary food should not be introduced until after six months. Breastfeeding should then continue for two years or beyond. Poppy is only five and a half weeks old. Because I trust the WHO recommendations, the only thought that I have given to feeding her solid foods is that I am waiting to introduce anything that is not breast milk until she is at least six months old if not older.
However, other parents with babies who are the same age as my daughter are already thinking about introducing foods like baby cereal. These parents ask questions and make comments about feeding babies solid foods prior to six months on a number of Facebook pages and message boards that I am a member of. Whenever I see one of these posts, I always reply that babies should not be given anything other than breast milk until at least six months. I often cite the WHO recommendations.
Why is delaying solid foods so important?
First and most importantly, the digestive system of a baby less than six months old is immature. The mouths, tummies, and intestines of babies are simply not equipped for any food other than breast milk until approximately six months of age.
For one, almost all infants are born without teeth. Teeth are required for chewing solid foods. As Dr. Sears argues, the lack of teeth in young babies provides further evidence that “the young infant is designed to suck rather than to chew. My daughter is very much toothless. Pureed foods aside, until she acquires a number of teeth, I will not be introducing any solid foods but will continue to exclusively breastfeed her.
In addition to a lack of teeth, young babies have a tongue-thrust reflex. The tongue-thrust reflex prompts a baby to thrust his or her tongue forward as a result of stimulation to the back of the throat. The tongue-thrust reflex protects young babies from choking. Until the tongue-thrust reflex disappears, trying to feed a baby solid foods is waging a losing battle. Introducing solid foods into the mouth will just prompt a baby to push the food forward and out with his or her tongue. I cannot even get Poppy to keep a pacifier in her mouth; her tongue just pushes the binky out (thank goodness!), which indicates that she is very much not ready for solid foods.
As well as lacking teeth and having the tongue-thrust reflex, young babies also lack the ability to properly swallow substances other than breast milk. Put food in his or her mouth and a baby younger than about four months old will simply push that food around and out. I obviously cannot expect my daughter to eat solid foods when she cannot even swallow!
Most importantly, though, is that the end of the digestive system of a young baby is just as immature as the beginning. At birth, the cells of the intestinal walls are spaced relatively far apart, which allows intact macromolecules such as antibodies, proteins, and pathogens to enter directly into the bloodstream. Basically, the intestinal lining is permeable; hence, the term “open gut.” An open gut is great for allowing the beneficial antibodies from breast milk to build up the immune system. Because breast milk contains 50+ known immune factors, babies who are exclusively breastfed for the six months of life experience fewer illnesses such as ear infections and respiratory problems. Introducing solid foods too early lessens the immunity boasting power of breast milk. Furthermore, the longer a baby exclusively breastfeeds, the greater his or her protection from illnesses as a result of the antibodies in breast milk. I want to protect my daughter as best as possible for as long as possible. To do so, I will not be giving her any foods other than my breast milk until she is at least six months old to ensure that her intestines are mature enough to digest solid food properly.
As well as lowering the immunity protection of breast milk, introducing solid foods into an immature intestinal tract also increases the risk of iron-deficiency anemia. As I explored a few days ago, something as simple as giving a baby iron supplements reduces his or her ability to absorb the iron in breast milk properly. Introducing solid foods too early similarly increases the risk of low iron levels. In fact, a study published as “Iron Status in Breast-fed Infants” in The Journal of Pediatrics discovered that none of the infants who were exclusively breastfed for seven or more months in the study developed anemia. If protecting Poppy is as easy as not giving her solid foods too soon, then I by all means will continue to exclusively breastfeed my daughter for as long as possible.
Most importantly to me, not introducing solid foods into an immature digestive system reduces the risk of a child developing food allergies. Just as antibodies cross into the blood stream from an immature gut, so too do proteins from foods. Early exposure to food proteins via the open gut increases the incidence of food allergies in children while delaying the introduction of solid foods correlates to a decreased risk. Because I suffer from food allergies including an allergy to tree nuts, I am doing everything in my power to prevent Poppy from also having allergies. I am exposing her to germs to build her immunity by not sterilizing her environment. (Clean and sterile are completely different.) I am also planning on breastfeeding as long as possible including exclusively breastfeeding as long as possible. Because she is predisposed to allergies, I am planning on exclusively breastfeeding my daughter past six months if possible.
Finally, delaying the introduction of solid foods decreases the risk of future obesity. With a decreased risk of obesity also comes a decreased risk of weight-related health problems such as diabetes and heart disease. Continuing to exclusively breastfeed is so simple, so I will wait to give Poppy foods other than breast milk as a way to protect her future health.
To recap, the most important reasons for delaying the introduction of solid foods include:
- Lack of teeth
- Tongue-thrust reflex
- Immature swallowing mechanisms
- Immature intestines
- Increased immune protection
- Decreased risk of anemia
- Decreased risk of food allergies
- Decreased risk of obesity
Exclusively breastfeeding for a minimum of six months offers so many benefits to babies. Continue to protect your baby by delaying the introduction of solid foods.
6 reasons to delay introducing solid food: http://www.askdrsears.com/topics/feeding-infants-toddlers/starting-solids/6-reasons-delay-introducing-solid-food
Exclusive breastfeeding: http://www.who.int/nutrition/topics/exclusive_breastfeeding/en/
Pisacane, Alfredo, Basilio De Vizia, Adriana Valiante, Filomena Vaccaro, Maria Russo, Giacomo Grillo & Arturo Giustardi. 1995. Iron status in breast-fed infants. The Journal of Pediatrics 127(3): 429-31.
Why delay solids?: http://www.kellymom.com/nutrition/solids/delay-solids.html
Baby Food Section: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Baby_food_section_at_Best_Price.jpg