Too many babies start eating solid foods too soon, CDC study says

Four out of 10 mothers surveyed began feeding their infants solid food when they were only 4 months old and their still-developing bodies weren’t able to process it -- and more than half the moms said they had been advised to do so by a medical professional. 

Those are the findings of a survey released Monday by the journal Pediatrics. Considering that the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology all recommend that parents wait to introduce solid food until their babies are about 6 months old, the results suggest that many parents -- along with the doctors and nurses they rely on -- are woefully out of step with the latest medical advice. 

Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent questionnaires to thousands of pregnant women and invited them to take part in the Infant Feeding Practices Study II. Then they checked in with them when their babies were 2, 3 and 4 months old. The responses included in the Pediatrics study were from 1,334 mothers. 

Overall, 539 of those mothers -- or 40.4% -- said they started feeding their babies solid food before they turned 4 months old. Those foods included yogurt, tofu, infant cereal, fruits and vegetables, peanut butter, eggs, fish, chicken, meat and even French fries. 

Mothers who had been feeding their babies formula were especially likely to introduce solid foods before the four-month mark, the study found. Among moms who had used formula only, 53% said they started solid foods by then, along with 50% of moms who combined formula and breast milk. Still, among mothers who were exclusively breastfeeders -- as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics -- 24% said they had fed their babies solid food by age 4 months. 

Why did they? The researchers listed 12 possible explanations and asked the mothers to indicate which ones they agreed with. Here’s how the mothers responded: 

* 89% of mothers said, “My baby was old enough to begin to eat solid food.” 

* 71% of mothers said, “My baby seemed hungry a lot of the time.”  

* 67% of mothers said, “My baby wanted the food I ate or in other ways showed an interest in solid food.” 

* 65% of mothers said, “I wanted to feed my baby something in addition to breast milk or formula.” 

* 55% of mothers said, “A doctor or other healthcare professional said my baby should begin eating solid food.” 

* 46% of mothers said, “It would help my baby sleep longer at night.” 

Other justifications from the moms included concerns that they were not producing enough milk for their infants, that their babies were not gaining enough weight, and that friends and relatives told them they should start their babies on solids. 

The women in the CDC study were more likely to be older, married, have more education and earn higher incomes than the mothers who have previously been identified as most likely to introduce solid foods too early. Therefore, the CDC researchers speculated that the true proportion of American mothers who go against medical advice on feeding could very well be greater than 40.4%. 

Why is this a concern? Many studies have linked early introduction of solid foods with an increased risk of developing diabetes, celiac disease, obesity and even eczema down the road. In addition, the sooner babies switch to solids, the sooner they stop breastfeeding -- and thus lose out on important health benefits such as a reduced risk of ear and respiratory infections and sudden infant death syndrome.  

You can read a summary of the Pediatrics study online here

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