Even one exposure to a formula or cereal causes changes in a young baby's body, and can trigger allergies that might have been avoided. Young babies have very low levels of an enzyme important to starch digestion, so early cereal may be filling, but it isn't effective food. Early fruits or vegetables can interfere with iron absorption. And studies indicate that babies sleep through the night when they're ready, not when they start solids. Is your baby gaining poorly? Supplementing a low milk supply can make your supply even lower. If weight gain is a concern, call a breastfeeding specialist for help in keeping your baby well-fed and nursing.
So when is a baby ready for solids? If your baby is about 6 months old and can sit up, reach for food, put it in his mouth, chew and swallow it, and reach for more, he's ready, and he can do it himself without help from the baby food industry. In contrast, the old image of Mom patiently spooning puréed food in and Baby spitting it back out is a picture of a baby who is just not ready yet.
The older guidelines that recommend starting solids "at 4 to 6 months" include formula-fed babies and those few breastfed infants whose growth is truly faltering. For the baby who is doing well on breastmilk alone, early solids may replace a complete, well-digested food with an incomplete, poorly digested one, and can lead to obesity, allergies, and even anemia. There are good reasons to wait until about 6 months, especially if there are allergies in the family.
Some 4 and 5 month olds are "mouth hungry", and seem eager to eat. They more likely want to teethe or practice or socialize, and will probably be happy to sit at the table with cups, spoons, plates, and company. They may also be seeking more chances to nurse for food or comfort. On the other hand, the baby who insists on solid food before 6 months knows his own body. He is a person, not a calendar. Offer him age-appropriate finger foods and let him do it himself. That will increase the entertainment value, decrease the mess and expense, and eliminate worries about overdoing it.
Other babies may not be interested in solids until well past the 6-month mark. No problem, so long as they continue to thrive. Follow your baby's lead. He will increase solids at his own pace, if you make them available to him at the family table. But breastmilk may be his main source of food for some time to come. Rest assured that your milk is a fully nutritious food for as long as your baby enjoys it. Breastfed is best fed. Relax and keep the food fun. La Leche League's pamphlet, Your Baby's First Solid Food, is a good source of more information on when and how to start solids. Call 1-800-LA LECHE or a local LLL Leader for a copy.
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