© 2017 Roy Benaroch, MD
A commenter objected to advice I’ve given about when to start complementary foods in infancy:
Why, when the WHO, UNICEF, and the AAP all recommend exclusive breastfeeding until 6 months of age, do you still have the introduction of solid foods at 4 months. It’s confusing for women who want to do the right thing for their child to come across your articles on starting solids at this age. Study after study show the benefits for both mother and child of exclusive breastfeeding until 6 months.
I wouldn’t rely on WHO and UNICEF recommendations. I’m not so sure that what they say is entirely relevant to babies in the developed world. I’m going to focus here on the AAP recommendations, which reflect the needs of babies in the USA and other highly developed countries.
Current AAP recommendations are deliberately vague about the precise timing of introducing solids. They say that complementary foods shouldn’t be introduced “until 4 to 6 months” – see the phrasing in this abstract and under point 2 of this article. Since AAP recommendations automatically expire 5 years after they’re published, there isn’t a valid AAP published statement on this exact issue right now. These two citations reflect the most-recent recommendation: solids can be introduced during a window of time, from 4 to 6 months.
Why then? Earlier solids are associated with obesity and nutritional problems; later solids are associated with feeding issues, iron deficiency, and an increased risk of allergy. The 4 to 6 month window maximizes nutrition while minimizing allergy risk, and works well for most babies.
But it is a window, not an exact time. We don’t have any research that says 4 months is perfect, or 5 months is perfect, or 6 months is perfect. I know of no studies from a developed country that show an important health advantage of starting to feed at six months rather than four, or starting at four months instead of six. Probably all of these times are fine. The absolute best time depends on a baby’s development and temperament (as well as the family’s style and feeding preferences.) There’s no perfect, one-size-fits-all answer here.
When I talk about this with families, I try to figure out what the baby thinks about all of this. A 4-month-old baby who’s watching his siblings eat intently, or lunging at their food, or becoming disinterested in the breast or bottle – that’s probably a baby that’s ready to be fed solid foods. Babies of the same age who aren’t so interested in food, those babies can wait another month or so. And if solids aren’t going well at first, it’s fine to stop and wait a few weeks before trying again. We can make all of the plans we want, as parents and pediatricians – but the bottom line is that this is one of many decisions that babies help make on their own. Good for them!