It’s one of those questions new parents ask anxiously again and again – when should you start feeding your baby solid food?
Years ago, the generally-accepted advice was to start introducing new textures and tastes at around three or four months – baby rice, pureed carrot, breadsticks. Then it became about waiting until you thought your baby was ready, prompting many a pointed comment from older parents and grandparents about how five-month-old Junior was clearly in need of ‘a little extra something’.
More recently, organisations such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the UK’s National Health Service advocate waiting until a baby is six months old before giving solid food, as breast or formula milk will provide all the necessary nutrients until this age.
Now, a new report published by researchers in the UK and US now says feeding solids before this age could have a small but significant impact on your baby’s sleep patterns.
Most parents have introduced solid foods by the time their babies are five months old
The findings were revealed when teams from both countries explored whether the risk of developing food allergies could be reduced by the early introduction of certain foods. As part of their study, the impact on other areas – including growth and speech – were also examined.
The research studied just over 1300 three-month-old babies who, until this age, were exclusively breast-fed. They were randomly divided into two groups, with one following the standard advice of a milk-only diet until six months, and the other introduced to a variety of solid foods over time.
The study continued to monitor the children over a period of three years, tracking details such as sleep patterns, behaviour and food consumption.
The results showed that those babies who were given solid foods from three months old slept on average for two hours more per week at the age of six months than those who were still solely breast-fed. They also woke less in the night – just over 9% fewer times over the duration of the research. The parents of those babies eating solid foods earlier were also half as likely to report any serious problems with their children’s sleep.
“We believe the most likely explanation for our findings of improved sleep is that these babies are less hungry,” said Gideon Lack, professor of paediatric allergy at King’s College London and co-author of the research.
The idea that diet affects a baby’s sleep is nothing new. A survey carried out by the National Health Service in the UK suggested most parents have introduced solid foods by the time their babies are five months old, often doing so because they feel their baby is no longer satisfied with a milk-only diet.
It doesn’t matter if everyone else’s babies are wolfing down mashed-up bananas – yours just isn’t ready
And there’s a crucial point. No matter what the results of such research or the advice given by an official body, every child is different. While it’s true babies’ systems simply aren’t developed enough to cope with solid food before a certain age, it’s also true that others are ready for ‘real’ food before the current advised age of six months.
As with so many areas of parenting, it’s important to take your own situation into account. If your baby is desperate to get his or her hands on your morning toast and wakes to demand extra feeds every night, then you probably don’t need to stick rigidly to the six-month milk-only rule.
Conversely, if your baby shows no interest in anything beyond the breast or bottle and continues to thrive, don’t feel you need to tempt them with anything else. It doesn’t matter if everyone else’s babies are wolfing down mashed-up bananas – yours just isn’t ready.
Read the research that’s available. Take current advice into account. Talk to your health professional, other parents, or whoever else you trust to give good advice. Then make a decision based on the needs of your child.