More than half of babies in the U.S. are being introduced to food too soon, according to a new analysis of nearly 1,500 infants. The World Health Organization recommends holding off on introducing foods other than breast milk and formula, otherwise known as complementary foods, until they’re six months old. However, the recent study underscores an apparent lack of understanding about the benefits of waiting to introduce food and a need for improved guidance on the subject.
“Introducing babies to complementary foods too early can cause them to miss out on important nutrients that come from breast milk and infant formula,” study coauthor Chloe M. Barrera of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement. “Conversely, introducing them to complementary foods too late has been associated with micronutrient deficiencies, allergies, and poorer diets later in life.”
To track if American parents were actually following these recommendations, Barrera and her team examined the food intake of 1,482 babies ages 6 to 36 months. Parents reported what age infants were when they first ate anything other than formula or breast milk, including juice, cow’s milk, baby food, and any solid foods. Despite current recommendations, researchers found that about two-thirds, or 67.5 percent of families were not following them. Overall, 16.3% were introduced to complementary foods before 4 months, 38.3% between 4 and 5 months, and 12.9% introduced them late at 7 or more months old.
Interestingly, the caveats of the study suggest that the reality may actually be worse than the results do justice. Since the data relied primarily on self-reporting, parents who were aware of the recommendations would presumably be more likely to underreport disregarding them, as opposed to the other way around.
Barrera and many other experts argue that babies need formula and/or breast milk for the first 6 months of their lives because it contains condensed, and very specific nutrients they need at a crucial time in their development. Still, it’s not totally the fault of parents that they didn’t get the memo — guidelines for when to introduce other foods have been largely all over the place for the past 60 years. The 1958 guidelines was all for giving babies solid foods as early as 3 months (right before blowing a drag of your cigarette in their tiny face). In the 1970s they changed it to 4 months, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that they bumped it up to 6 months. Fortunately the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are both on it and currently working to develop federal dietary guidelines for children under 2-years-old for the first time ever.
“Efforts to support caregivers, families, and healthcare providers may be needed to ensure that U.S. children are achieving recommendations on the timing of food introduction,” Barrera and her co-investigators from CDC added. “Inclusion of children under two in the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans may promote consistent messaging of when children should be introduced to complementary foods.”
Though those guidelines won’t be released until 2020, you can follow this simple rule in the meantime. Embrace the excuse not to share your food with your kid while you have it.