ATLANTA, GA -- Most mothers may be starting their infants on solid foods months sooner than specialists recommend, mistakenly believing their children are old enough to graduate from breast milk or formula - but many say they're simply following doctors' orders, according to a study published today.
Parents should wait until their little ones are at least 6 months old before offering them solid foods, say many child-nutrition experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics.
But researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - who surveyed 1,334 new moms - discovered that almost 93 percent of those women had introduced solid foods to their infants before 6 months, that 40 percent did it before the 4-month mark, and that 9 percent had offered solids to their babies before they were even four weeks old, according to the study, published today in Pediatrics.
"Fifty percent said that their health care provider told them it was time to introduce solid food," said Kelley Scanlon, a co-author of the study and lead epidemiologist in the nutrition branch in the division of nutrition, physical activity and obesity at the CDC.
"That, for us, indicates that health care providers need to provide clearer guidance and really support women in carrying out the recommendation," Scanlon said.
Physicians' groups settled on the 6-month cut-off after earlier research determined that children who get solid food at too early might be at a greater risk for developing chronic diseases, such as diabetes, obesity, eczema and celiac disease, Scanlon said.
The mothers who volunteered for the CDC study filled out food diaries and questionnaires designed to ferret out their opinions on why and when solid foods should be offered.
Among the moms offering solid foods to infants younger than 4 months, the most commonly cited reasons for doing so included: "My baby was old enough;" "My baby seemed hungry;" "I wanted to feed my baby something in addition to breast milk or formula," "My baby wanted the food I ate;" "A doctor or other health care professional said my baby should begin eating solid food;" and "It would help my baby sleep longer at night," researchers reported.
What's more, moms who fed their babies formula were far more likely to start solids too early versus those who exclusively breast-fed (53 percent versus 24 percent), the study showed.
One food expert unaffiliated with the CDC study suggested that some health-care providers may simply be unfamiliar with current baby-feeding recommendations.
"I think this is worrisome," said Ann Condon-Meyers, a pediatric dietician at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. "I think it may show that word isn't getting out that ... it is 6 months before solid foods should be offered."
Still, the study's findings didn't surprise Condon-Meyers, who added: "I work in pediatrics and we see a lot of early introduction of solid foods when we do patient histories."
In addition to possibly boosting, a child's risk for contracting certain chronic diseases, introducing solid foods too early often means babies don't drink an adequate amount of breast milk or formula, and that can translate into poorer nutrition, Condon-Meyers said.
Breast milk and formula have all the nutrients and vitamins a baby needs and in the right proportions, Condon-Meyers said.
"If you start giving solid food too early then you are diluting the nutritional intake," she said. "You're getting more calories, but less of the nutrients a baby needs to grow."