Ideally, babies are exclusively breast-fed for the first six months of their lives. Then, solid food — really, a misnomer since “solids” consist initially of soupy rice or barley cereal — is introduced. But a quarter of U.S. infants are introduced to solid foods before they hit four months.
Why parents disregard the recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the World Health Organization to hold off on solids until six months and what that means for these babies down the road is the subject of two new studies in the AAP journal Pediatrics. (More on Time.com: Study: Kids Eat Less Sugar If They’re Allowed to Sweeten their Own Cereal)
One study, published Monday by researchers at Children’s Hospital Boston and Harvard University, shows that introducing solids before a baby’s 4-month birthday is linked to a sixfold increase in that baby becoming obese by the time he’s 3. This was true for infants whose mothers never breast-fed them or weaned them before four months.
Researchers tracked 847 children — two-thirds of whom were breast-fed — and found that 75 kids, or 9%, were obese by the time they turned 3. While formula-fed babies were six times as likely to be obese at age 3 if they began eating solid foods before four months, the point at which solid food was introduced mattered little for breast-fed babies. When they began eating solids was not associated with an increased risk of obesity.
What could account for the difference? Formula-fed infants may eat more once solids are introduced whereas breast-fed babies are thought to do a better job of self-regulating their caloric intake. “The first few months after birth may be a critical window for the development of obesity,” write the authors. (More on Time.com: Why Most Moms Don’t Follow Breast-Feeding Recommendations)
The other study, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), looked at low-income, black mothers — a group that tends to start solids earlier — and found that first-time mothers were likely to feed their babies solids because they thought their “fussiness” meant they needed additional supplementation.
Most of the babies studied — 77% — were fed solids at 3 months; just 6% were exclusively breastfed. Moms who characterized their infants as fussy were twice as likely to feed them solid food and juice at four months. The babies getting solids ahead of schedule were digesting 100 calories a day more than those who weren’t. “It’s very significant for a baby because the typical infant takes in 500 to 700 calories,” says Heather Wasser, a nutrition doctoral student at UNC and the study’s lead author.
The potential ramifications of starting solid food early is something public health researchers fret over, especially since the rate of overweight babies and toddlers in the U.S. has leaped 60% since 1980. Research has shown that the longer a mother breast-feeds, the lower the risk of obesity later in childhood and even, according to some studies, into adulthood. But for some reason, black mothers stop breast-feeding sooner than others do. At three months post-partum, just 19% of black moms are exclusively breast-feeding, in comparison to 35% of white moms and 37% of Hispanic moms.
Previous national data has showed that black babies have the greatest risk of becoming overweight. And since heavy babies tend to grow into heavy adults, researchers were interested in what factors might be contributing to their weight gain. (More on Time.com: WhiteOut: Even Babies Can Embrace the Whole-Grains Movement)
“Some of these moms believe that fussiness indicates they’re not getting enough from breast milk,” says Wasser. “We should be teaching moms there are things they can do to soothe fussy infants other than feeding solids.”
That’s where Barbara Davis Goldman, a developmental psychologist at UNC and one of the study’s co-authors, comes in. First of all, she says, try to figure out what’s bugging the baby. That, of course, is not always easy to do, especially with a non-verbal, squalling infant. “Lots of times the reasons are murky,” says Davis Goldman. “Sometimes babies just have bad times or days like the rest of us.”
But parents can try a host of soothing techniques, aside from feeding: swaddling, shushing, singing, dancing with the baby, rocking the baby, patting the baby’s back or bottom, walking the baby in one’s arms face up or in a “football carry” or up over the shoulder (chest to chest, with the baby’s head nestled in your neck) or in a baby carrier, going for a ride in a stroller or car, giving the baby a toy…the possibilities are just endless.
Of course, it’s not hard to figure out why moms may fall back on feeding as a soothing strategy; after all, many adults self-soothe by eating. There’s even a term for it: “comfort food.” But if we’re going to stanch the tide of childhood obesity, moms would be better off offering comfort alone and saving the solids for down the line.