One of my most loathed internet phrases is “Food before one is just for fun.” I’m not really sure where this phrase got its start and I’m sure initial intentions were good, but it’s sort of taken on a life of its own. I think it’s intentions were to say – don’t stress about food! But instead people use it to mean things like food isn’t important and that it’s okay if you don’t offer it. I’m not 100 percent sure, but I suspect Mayim Bialik’s decision to nurse her kids exclusively for a year may have something to do with it as she has become quite the outspoken attachment parenting spokesperson in Hollywood and so much of celebrity culture trickles down even when you’re not paying attention. So today I want to do some myth busting. I’ll explore why it’s valuable and link to a bunch of resources as well.
Before we start, I just want to put it out there that I started both my boys at six months with baby led weaning. It’s been absolutely a blast for us and I’m so glad we did it. That being said, what I’m about to say applies to any complementary foods – baby led weaning or traditional weaning. Many of my sources promote a traditional weaning approach, so note that if you click on any links. (Some day I will do a post on baby led weaning). I’m also going to say up front that I’m probably going to mention breastfeeding a lot, not that I think this info doesn’t apply to formula fed babies, but because I feel like I have more often heard these things from breastfeeding mothers than from formula feeding mothers and because a lot of the food before one is just for fun argument rests on the assumption that breastmilk is a perfect food.
This is going to be a link heavy post, but if you want the tl;dr version (haha), food is important for babies after six months. There, we can all go home now (Just kidding).
Breastfeeding activists, in particular, like to point out what a perfect food breastmilk is. And it is an excellent food source – certainly I feel so as I breastfed Dominic to 20 months and am still breastfeeding Allen at 9 months. But that does not mean that solid foods aren’t important nutritionally.
Don’t just take my word for it. A lot of highly reputable organizations stress the importance of the introduction of complementary foods. The WHO, which promotes breastfeeding until 2 years minimum, still says, “After six months of age, however, it becomes increasingly difficult for breastfed infants to meet their nutrient needs from human milk alone (WHO/UNICEF, 1998). Furthermore, most infants are developmentally ready for other foods at about six months (Naylor and Morrow, 2001).” (Page 11) UNICEF echoes this “Adequate complementary feeding of children from 6 months onwards is particularly important for growth and development and the prevention of undernutrition.”
Iron is the nutrient most in question, followed by zinc. Insufficient iron, also known as anemia, can have serious consequences on development. From the AAP, “Exclusive breastfeeding for more than 6 months has been associated with increased risk of IDA [iron deficiency anemia] at 9 months of age.” (Page 5) This study published in the Journal of Nutrition found that effects of anemia in infancy can last to adulthood and can include developmental and motor delays. Iron is extremely important for cognitive development, I can not stress that enough.
Now one point that people like the argue with on this is that the iron in breastmilk is more bioavailable. That is most certainly true. But, being more bioavailable doesn’t make up for the fact that it is still a small amount. From the WHO, “Breast milk can make a substantial contribution to the total nutrient intake of children between 6 and 24 months of age, particularly for protein and many of the vitamins. However, breast milk is relatively low in several minerals such as iron and zinc, even after accounting for bioavailability. At 9-11 months of age, for example, the proportion of the Recommended Nutrient Intake that needs to be supplied by complementary foods is 97% for iron, 86% for zinc, 81% for phosphorus, 76% for magnesium, 73% for sodium and 72% for calcium (Dewey, 2001).” (Page 22) That means breastmilk isn’t providing all the iron they need and not even close to it. Science of Mom does a great job covering breastmilk and iron even more in-depth and I’ve linked to it below.
They also need the extra energy. Growing is hard work and babies certainly do a lot of it! If you look at where they go from newborn to a 1-year-old, you can just see the changes and growth that they go through. Better Health Channel, run by the government of Victoria in Australia, emphasizes this as one of their points. “It’s also important that starting solids is not left too late, as this may lead to problems including [p]oor growth due to low energy intake.” If you’ve ever had a day where you didn’t eat enough and you felt sluggish and tired, you know how hard that is to push through, especially at work. Now imagine being a baby, doing some of your most critical growing, and trying to do it when you are low in energy. It would be difficult to say the least. Solids can help provide the extra energy that they need.
Learning how to eat takes an entirely new skill set than taking a bottle or breast does. You need to learn to chew, to move the food around in your mouth, to figure out what size you need to make your food in order to swallow it, to learn how to pick the food up and move it to your mouth. Waiting too long may result in these motor skills being delayed. From the WHO again, “There is suggestive evidence of a ‘critical window’ for introducing ‘lumpy’ solid foods: if these are delayed beyond 10 months of age, it may increase the risk of feeding difficulties later on (Northstone et al., 2001).” (Page 20) Colorado State University says similar, “Introducing solid foods after 9 months may result in an infant who is resistant to trying solid foods, and may have difficulty chewing.” This post on speech and introduction of foods says, “A delay in introducing solids with different textures as your baby develops, can lead to a fussy infant unwilling to accept new tastes and textures, as well as a delay in chewing and muscle development, which can affect speech sounds later on.” I encourage you to check out that whole post as it covers which speech sounds are related to what mouth movements – that will help you really get an idea of why the introduction of solid foods strongly aids in the development of motor skills.
There is a growing body of evidence that strongly suggests that waiting too long to introduce potentially allergenic foods is more likely to cause allergies. There are a ton of studies out there to back this up – so I’m not going to link to all of them today. This is, in part, a separate topic, as the recommendations for many years were to wait on the top allergy causing foods and so there are still people who introduce foods at the appropriate time and yet still wait on the allergy foods, but I did want to bring up one study in particular that I thought was especially relevant. In this small study published in Clinical and Experimental Allergy the researchers found that exclusively breastfeeding past 9 months of age was associated with more atopic dermatitis and symptoms of food hypersensitivity in children whose family had a history of allergies. Now, granted, this is just one small study. But, I think it is helpful when you look at the broader context of the many studies that are finding withholding allergens causes food allergies, it makes this one study much more plausible. Food allergies are scary, scary things. They can have deadly consequences. Introducing these foods at 6 months + can be a step towards preventing them. It is a small, not crazy, totally doable thing.
I think we all want to avoid a picky eater. The internet is just full of moms on message boards worrying about their picky toddlers. Waiting too long can contribute to this problem. A pamphlet from the government of Western Australia says when you wait too long to introduce solid foods, “It becomes harder for your baby to accept new tastes and textures.” This somewhat ties back into motor skills, as there does seem to be a crucial period for developing lumpier foods. I think there is a window of opportunity where they are very open to new solid food experiences and that missing it can make introducing them to new things a lot harder. This is, of course, no guarantee, but there’s very little downside to introducing them to new foods, but the potential for a rejection of those new foods in waiting to introduce them.
This is what I know. At the end of the day, most mothers are trying to do what’s best for their child. They want solids to be fun and not stressful – and I don’t blame them! The internet is full of moms worrying about whether or not their kid can eat this or that, what order foods should be introduced in, whether or not there’s an ideal time of day to introduce foods, and a whole plethora of other questions. There are even well-meaning websites that promote charts of what order to introduce foods that are not based in any science but that have the power to 100 percent stress parents out. So what I’m saying in this post is not stress about food – that kind of attitude helps no one. What I am saying, however, is that food before one is very important, nutritionally, for the development of their motor skills, and for the potential prevention of allergies and picky eating habits. Knowing its importance, however, does not have to make it stressful. What is does do is enable you to make decisions taking into account that it is important. So here’s to doing away with the phrase “Food before one is just for fun.”