When should babies start solid foods?
While advice about when to introduce solid foods to infants varies around the world, most countries recommend that solids should be offered at around six months of age and not before four months.
Promoting the exclusive breastfeeding of infants to around six months of age and, as a result, delaying their introduction to solid foods is informed by the understanding that:
- an infant’s nutritional needs can be met by breast or formula milk until this age but not beyond (eg the iron requirements of children older than six months must be provided by solid foods)
- breastfeeding reduces diarrhoeal disease in children, particularly important in developing economies for improving child survival
- most children will be developmentally ready to accept solid foods by six months of age (in other words, most children will be able to sit and have the head and tongue control needed to facilitate eating).
What does the research say?
Despite advice to delay the introduction of solid food until around six months of age, many parents believe it’s good to start feeding solid foods earlier than this. Some reasons for this include the belief that their baby:
- needs more food than they’re getting
- will sleep better if they consume solid foods in addition to milk.
In Week 1, we discussed the interpretation of growth charts and that many parents are not confident that breastmilk alone will provide enough nutrition for healthy growth. However:
- it’s very unlikely that a baby will need more nutrition than that provided by breastmilk, so this is not a good reason for introducing solid foods early
- it’s also unlikely that introducing solid foods to babies will improve their sleep and/or prevent them from waking at night.
Let’s look at each of these points in further detail.
1. How can I tell when my baby is ready for solid foods?
Signs that your baby is hungry and ready to start eating solid foods include:
- getting excited when they see you getting their food ready
- leaning towards you while they are sitting in the highchair
- opening their mouth as you’re about to feed them.
To find out more about identifying whether your baby is hungry and ready to start solid foods, watch this video to see your Lead Educator, Professor Karen Campbell, talking with a new parent about when she should feed her baby and the role of introducing fortified rice cereal to her baby’s diet.
2. Can introducing solid foods earlier help babies sleep better?
Some parents believe that introducing solid foods will help their baby sleep better at night, even though starting solid foods before six months is unlikely to prevent night waking as there are other reasons why babies this age experience sleep issues.
For example, it’s not uncommon for babies at around three to four months of age to start waking more at night, even if they have been good sleepers until then. However, this doesn’t always mean they are hungry. If your baby has been fed in the past three to four hours, try to re-settle them without feeding.
Other common reasons for night waking include:
As babies move from one sleep cycle to another, they may wake and call out for their parents. The trick is to have your baby learn to put themselves back to sleep without your help.
At three to four months of age, babies start to learn sleep associations (eg always being fed or rocked to sleep or having a dummy). If they do wake between sleep cycles, then they need the same things to get them back to sleep.
Other developmental milestones can affect sleep and cause your baby to wake up more. For example, when your baby learns to roll, they may get stuck in new positions or they might just want to practice their new skill all night!
Helping babies to learn good sleeping habits is clearly important, but our message is that feeding is not the answer. There are many sources of help for parents regarding the establishment of good sleep habits. The Raising Children Network is a great place to start.
There are a range of reasons why parents introduce solid foods earlier than the recommended six months.
Tell us about your own experiences in a similar situation with either your own baby’s introduction to solids or that of a friend or family member.
When doing so, you may want to consider:
- why did you or others introduce solid foods at this time?
- where did you (or they) get their information and support?
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