I recently wrote this on Venice’s Baby Led Weaning blog:
We planned to offer solids when my kids were a year old. We’ve never done baby food or mush.
At 11.5 months my daughter found a strawberry in our delivered food bucket and sucked it dry! That evening we gave her a portion of supper and she started eating from there on her own.
My son started eating food about the same time, maybe a bit earlier (?) but more so because my daughter sparked interest in him.
After they started eating solids we’d make up a portion to feed themselves but they didn’t always eat all of it. Both kids have always enjoyed a wide variety of foods and flavours! My daughter still nurses intermittently and of course my son is still nursing quiet a bit.
Many people over the years have asked for more detail about why I would avoid offering my child food before a year. I’ve decided to copy a bit out of the book “Take Charge of Your Child’s Health” by Dr. George Wootan. A father of 11 (!) he offers common sense suggestions in caring for your children and their health. An excellent reference book to have on hand for more subjects than just breastfeeding and first foods. The following is a bit long but well worth the read.
Breast Milk Formula and Solid Foods (page 122)
There has been a tendency in the medical community to compare the composition of breast milk against that of formula as if formula were the model that must be lived up to as a baby’s perfect food. Consider, for example, this quote from a medical journal: “Although breast milk contains less protein and energy than formula, this does not constitute a problem because breast milk is so well suited to the infant.” It would make more sense to turn this statement around to say that the composition of formula may present problems because it contains more protein and energy than breast milk.
This same backward thinking is applied to expectations concerning infant growth patterns. At around the age of six months, bottle fed infants tend to start getting larger than babies who are breast fed. As a result, doctors will often conclude that breast fed infants need supplemental feedings in order to take care of this “lag” in growth. However, they are comparing the growth of the breast fed babies against reference standards for bottle fed babies, who grow at a faster rate. To date, there has been no large study to chart the normal growth patterns for babies who are exclusively breast fed. A doctor who tells you that your breast fed baby “needs” solid food or formula is working under the faulty assumption that breast fed and bottle fed babies should have the same growth patterns. In fact, studies have been done in Japan of children who were highly allergic and so received nothing but breast milk for the first two years of life. These children showed no nutritional or growth problems whatsoever. As one researcher in the field has suggested, “as long as the infant is growing, there is no need to add supplemental foods.”
As you may have guessed by now, I am of the opinion that infants should not be started on solid foods between the ages of four and six months, as is often recommended by doctors. (Even Le Leche League suggests beginning solids at six months.) There are some very good reasons to delay the introduction of solid foods into your child’s diet. One important reason is that the introduction of either solid foods or supplemental formula seems to reduce the effectiveness of breast milk’s immune properties. One study conducted in India observed three groups of children: one group was exclusively breast fed, one was fed both breast milk and supplemental formula or solid foods, and one was fed only formula and/or solid foods. The breast fed children had the lowest incidence of disease and mortality. The babies who had mixed feedings had slightly fewer gastrointestinal problems than those who were artificially fed, but their rates of respirator diseases, middle ear infections, and skin diseases were essentially the same. Two more interesting studies were done in Guatemala, where the children are typically breast fed for the first two to three years, with solid foods being added to the diet around five to six months. While the purpose of these studies was to illustrate how disease and diet work together in causing malnutrition, one of the findings was that the incidence of overt disease increased substantially after complementary foods were started.
Keeping digestive problems at bay
Another good reason to keep your baby on a diet of breast milk alone is that a baby’s intestinal tract is not fully developed until several months after birth, perhaps as late as 18-24 months. Digestion is a complicated breakdown process that begins in the mouth when food is mixed with saliva, and continues throughout the digestive tract with the stomach, pancreas, liver, and intestines all playing a unique role. Various enzymes are involved in each stage of digestion, speeding up the breakdown of food and converting it into a form that can be utilised by the body. Some of these enzymes are present only in very low levels or are entirely missing from the infant digestive system.
One of these enzymes is amylase, which plays a key role in the digestion of carbohydrates. The common suggestion for a baby’s first food is cereal or fruit, both carbohydrates. However, amylase is present at just 10 percent of adult levels in an infant’s small intestines, and is virtually nonexistent in the pancreas until at least six months of age. Ptyalin, an enzyme in saliva that breaks down carbohydrates, does not appear until around 12 months of age. When carbohydrates are introduced into a baby’s diet too early, he may be unable to digest them completely. The result can be poor nutrition due to failure to absorb the nutrients in the food, and possibly diarrhea.
This lack of enzymes presents no problem to the breast fed baby, since human milk contains more than 20 enzymes that become active in the stomach so that the milk is easily digested. One of the most important enzymes contained in breast milk is lipase, which helps to break down fats, from which 40-50 percent of the energy in both human milk and formula is derived. Not only is formula completely lacking in lipase, but at least one researcher has suggested that “these compensatory, or complementary, mechanisms for fat utilization’s… are less effective when cow’s milk fat or other fats are introduced into [the] diet” -so that the baby who is fed supplementary formula may have more trouble digesting even breast milk than if he were on a diet of breast milk alone.
Some lipase is produced at the back of an infant’s tongue as he nurses. You may have noticed the “milking” action that’s made with the back of the tongue as an infant sucks. It seems probable that this action helps to stimulate lipase secretion and to mix the lipase with the milk to begin digestion from a bottle involves just sucking, this effect is eliminated if a baby is bottle fed.
Because formula contains no enzymes, the bottle fed baby is more prone to digestive problems. Protein molecules, which may cross the underdeveloped intestinal lining before they have been completely broken down, can be particularly troublesome. These molecules can then act as antigens, causing an allergic reaction.
Digestive problems are often compounded when modified food starch, a common ingredient in commercial baby foods, is added to the diet. Modified food starch, usually derived from corn or tapioca, has an even lower level of digestibility than other carbohydrates. In order for the modified food starch to be effective, it must make up approximately five percent of the product. While this may not sound like much, at this level it contributes about 32 percent of the food’s total calories.
My recommendation regarding solid foods before one year is to start with proteins rather than carbohydrates and to introduce them no earlier than at eight months of age, but preferably not until one year. Hydrochloric acid, which helps digest protein, begins to appear in the stomach around the seventh or eighth month of life.
It would seem, therefore, that the body would first be ready to digest proteins (at eight months) and then carbohydrates (at one year). By holding off on introducing any solid foods (or formula) until the age of one year, you can be certain that the digestive tract is sufficiently developed to be able to handle the foods you put into it. Remember, too, that breast milk contains everything your baby needs to thrive and be healthy for at lest the first year of life, probably for the first two. There’s really no reason to feed him anything else, and there are several good reason not to.
“Wait a minute,” you may say, “my five month old is ready to eat. I know, because he practically grabs food out of my mouth, he wants it so desperately.” It’s true that babies do get intensely interested in food around this age, but not necessarily because they are dying to eat. They just want to imitate your rather strange custom of sitting around a table and putting something in your face three times a day. It doesn’t matter to the baby whether that something is food or the dust balls from under your bed; he just wants to do what you’re doing. The way we’ve solved this little problem at our house is to buy some small toys, which we call mouth toys, that we bring out only at mealtimes. This tactic won’t work it you just give your baby one of the mouth toys when you sit down to dinner, however. Instead, put it on your plate so that when she wants what you have, you can hand the toy over. If you take things one step further and actually put the toy in your own mouth a few times, the baby will be doubly convinced that this great mouth toy is really what mealtime is all about.
When you do introduce solid foods to a child older than one year, I suggest you do so by letting the child feed himself. Give him soft foods, such as cooked vegetables that are easy to chew (if you wait until he’s a year old, you don’t have to strain and mash everything), and let him go at it. Allowed to discover food this way, you baby won’t overeat, and will tend to stay away from the food to which he is allergic, unless they are somehow made socially desirable. (If, for example, you down a bowl of ice cream in front of him every day, with obvious delight all over you face, your baby is going to want that ice cream whether or not he is allergic to dairy products.) Children are generally very good at picking out the foods they need and eating the right amounts. Offered only nutritious foods and allowed to eat as much or as little as they want, they will usually eat a balanced diet over the course of several days, although it may appear terrible on a day to day basis. If you insist on spooning the food into your baby’s mouth, you will influence what and how much he will eat, and interfere with his own inherent good judgement. True, leaving a baby to have his way with a bowl of peas and carrots may result in an awful mess, but it will also give your child a strong start toward good eating habits. You can minimize the damage by putting some sort of drop cloth under the high chair- or better yet, getting a cat or dog, who will soon become your baby’s best friend, at least at mealtimes.
A toddler who is allowed free access to the breast will eat solid food sporadically until he is about 18 months of age. One day he will consume almost nothing, and the next will put food away like a two hundred pound field hand. You needn’t worry about your baby’s fluctuating appetite while he is still nursing, however, since his nutritional needs will be met from breast feeding.
You will also find that your toddler does not eat three meals a day, but instead prefers to pick and snack all day long. I suggest you work with this tendency rather than trying to fight it. Prepare a plate of food in the morning, then let the child choose whatever he wants from it as the day goes on. This will save you the trouble of dropping everything to prepare some tidbit every hour or so, while it will allow your child to graze to his heart’s content.
I read this when my daughter was an infant and it convinced me to look at offering solid foods in a different light. It wasn’t always easy because no one I knew at the time was delaying solids. I’m so glad we did what we did though and hope that sharing this can help others find the confidence to do it a different way too.
Lindsay was recently featured in a Globe and Mail article about “Baby Led Weaning” which seems to be a British term for starting solids at your babies pace.