Does the age at which babies are introduced to solid foods influence their calorie intake or growth? Does starting solid foods too early lead to obesity? Those are questions that European researchers set out to answer.
Nearly 700 healthy formula-fed babies were followed for two years. Infants were categorized into four groups for study according to when they began eating solids: at a little over three months of age; between three and four months; between four and five months, and those who began eating solids at six months or later. Body measurements were taken at the beginning of the study, and at three, six, 12, and 24 months.
Those who were started on solid foods before four months of age gained more weight in the first year of life than the infants who started later, but it didn't seem to influence their long-term growth.
The results? Calorie intake was higher in the first eight months of life in those who started eating solids earlier. Infants who started eating solids at three months weighed less but caught up in growth within six months compared to the infants who started solids at six months and grew more slowly. Those who were started on solid foods before four months of age gained more weight in the first year of life than the infants who started later, but it didn't seem to influence their long-term growth. The introduction of solid foods did not predict their growth measurements, length or weight, at 24 months of age
The results of this study apply to infants in industrialized nations, not developing nations, where the majority of children have been introduced to solid foods before the age of four months, according to the authors. Previous studies have produced conflicting results on whether infants are more likely to become obese if started on solid foods before the age of four months, but they do show some health benefits for continuing breastfeeding.
According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 12.5 million children in the United States are obese. The rate of childhood obesity has tripled in the last thirty years, and it continues to be a growing problem.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants be introduced to solid foods at four to six months of age. Before this age, babies instinctively push their tongues against the spoon or food, a necessary reflex when breastfeeding or drinking from a bottle, because they are not developmentally ready for solid foods. Around the age of four months, this reflex is lost.
Other indicators that a baby is ready for solid foods include being able to control their head movement when sitting with support, showing interest in what parents are eating, and being able to reach for food. Most babies have doubled their birth weight when they are ready for solid food.