Five common myths around starting solid foods - and why they don't make sense
Just when you feel you've got the hang of giving your baby milk feeds, suddenly everyone becomes an expert on introducing solid foods. Alongside the questions of what you're going to give and how, a particular favourite topic is when your baby will start. Many people still believe that babies should first have solid foods before the recommended six months mark, interpreting normal baby behaviour as a sign that a more varied diet is needed. So common are these suggestions that someone should prepare a bingo card for new parents to tick off. Winner gets a great night's sleep (but not because you gave your baby porridge).
'He's a big boy, he needs something more!'
'She's not put on as much weight as usual'
'If you give him something more before bed he'll sleep through'
'You can't make enough breastmilk for a big baby '
'Look at him watching you eat, he's desperate to join in'
Have you won yet? Can you claim that full night's sleep? But on a serious note, how many of these are actually true? Or have even an inkling of truth in them?
Honestly? None. Not one at all.
Ok, I bet you will be able to find someone who swore giving their baby some pureed carrot had miraculous effects on their sleep. But either their memories have faded over time, their baby just happened to get a bit better at sleeping anyway, or in some cases it's not entirely true.
So what is the evidence behind why these suggestions are untrue, and why it really isn't any more easier or convenient to start before this time? Below are some of the most common myths and why they don't make sense.
1. He's a big boy, he needs something more!
A common reason given for why you should introduce sold foods early is having a big baby. The rationale given is that bigger babies have different calorie needs to smaller babies and need solid foods sooner. However, given the size of babies, this doesn't really make much sense. Firstly, the calorie needs of 'average' and large babies at around 4-6 months are really not that different. Babies and children between the ages of three months and three years need approximately 90-100 calories per kilogram of body weight per day. At about four months old, your average 50th percentile baby weights around 7.5kg, whereas a 98th percentile baby is closer to 9kg. This means that your larger baby will need only around 120 calories a day more than your average baby.
Looking at how they could get those extra calories, milk has far more calories and fat than most solid foods. Per 100ml, breastmilk has around 67 calories and 4g fat, and formula milk around 66 calories and 3.5g fat. Conversely, typical foods you might give to a baby under six months old would be fruit and vegetables. A 100g serving of vegetable purée has just 39 calories and 0.2g fat. Even 100g of baby porridge has only around 60 calories and 0.3g fat.
If you feel your baby needs more calories, it is simpler and easier to give them more milk. To get that extra 100 calories - around 15-20 minutes extra breastfeeding or two thirds of an extra bottle over the course of the day.
2. 'She's not put on as much weight as usual'
Many parents start to worry when they see that their baby's growth starts to slow down, as they approach six months old, but this is completely normal. The most rapid growth comes in the first month and then it starts to slow down. If we grew at the same rate we did in that first month... we'd weigh several tonnes as adults! If you look at the growth charts in your baby's record book you will see that the line is steepest in the early months, before starting to taper into a curve from around 3-4 months. So it is normal for your baby's growth to slow down. It does not mean they are starving and desperately need food.
Babies with higher birth weights often slow their weight gain earlier than lower birth weight babies. They're just settling into their natural growth pattern, but this can often be misinterpreted as something being wrong. It's natural to feel a certain sense of pride when you get your baby weighed and see they have grown, and it can feel disconcerting when this starts to change. But it's normal - and even if it wasn't, the best response is to offer calorie-dense breast or formula milk, not solids.
3. 'If you give him something more before bed he'll sleep through'
A common belief is that if a baby is not sleeping through the night, introducing solids, or giving more of them just before bed, will help them to sleep. Unfortunately, the amount of solids you give does not affect sleep (and while we're on the subject, neither does a bottle or cereal before bed).
It is normal for babies to wake up at night throughout the first year and beyond. Depending on which research study you read, somewhere between 30 and 80% of babies aged 6-12 months still wake up at night, with the most common number of times to wake up being once or twice. And babies wake up at night for reasons other than hunger. After all, adults wake up all the time at night and it's not because they need a snack. Babies may be cold, need a nappy changed, have come out of a sleep cycle, have been disturbed or simply want to be close to someone. And even if they were hungry, more milk would be the answer rather than less energy dense foods.
4. 'You can't make enough breastmilk for a big baby'
Actually you probably can, as long as you feed your baby responsively, whenever they want it. Your body will just increase its supply. This is one reason why many babies seem to go through a difficult phase at about four months when they feed very often - it's because they are building up the supply ready for a growth spurt. And the additional amount of milk needed is fairly small - about 100ml (about 15% more). Many women exclusively breastfeed twins or even triplets, and historically wet nurses often fed up to six babies at once!
5. 'Look at him watching you eat, he's desperate to join in!'
Yes, he does. He also looks at your face, but I'm guessing he doesn't want to eat you. Or he watches you use a knife or drive the car, but you're not going to let him do that yet. It's normal for babies to watch what we're doing and copy our movements - opening and closing our mouths, picking things up and putting them in... it's how they learn to do things. They also get great enjoyment from copying- it's why they like games where you copy their movements or sounds. It helps them learn about the world and also strengthens the bond between you. But does this mean they are trying to frantically signal they want food?
It's unlikely your baby is asking for food in this way, primarily because they have no idea what eating food is actually like. They don't understand that putting food in your mouth means you chew and swallow it and feel full. Food to them comes from the breast or in a bottle. It tastes like milk. They may pick up other items and chew or gum them, but they don't eat them. Thinking that they really want a bit of the tasty meal you are eating is transferring your knowledge of food to them.
So none of these myths are actually true. Waiting until six months to introduce solid foods is advised because it helps to reduce the risk of gastrointestinal infections, and that alone is a pretty good reason to wait. And aside from reducing these, there really is little benefit at all in starting before this time. Exciting at first perhaps, but after the 10th time of clearing yoghurt from every conceivable surface, even that starts to wear thin...