Just when you thought you knew what was best ... another study comes along to make you question everything. An article in the British Medical Journal says that exclusively breastfeeding for six months might not always be the best option.
This new evidence is raising a lot of hackles. However, nobody’s recommending formula or even supplementing with formula, so everybody just relax. The bottom line is this: Breast is still best, but you might want to introduce solid foods sooner (but not too soon) rather than later (but not too late).
Now, if you want to hear what the paper says and how it reached these conclusions and solid food recommendations, take a deep breath and click.
This paper was not a study -- it was a review of all the recent research on infant nutrition. The paper’s authors just wanted to take a closer look at the 2001 recommendation by the World Health Organization that recommends EBF (exclusive breastfeeding) for six months. Their conclusion is that babies need solids slightly earlier than six months.
The first thing they looked at is studies regarding infant infection. Four different studies found that kids who were EBF got fewer infections, though upon closer inspection, the benefit might taper off after three months. (Not my experience, but maybe I just have uber-healthy kids.) It's important to note that in cases where kids got more infections, bad enough to require hospital admission, the difference was that they got formula, not that they got solid foods.
Next, the researchers asked about nutritional adequacy. In other words, is breast milk enough to sustain an active infant’s needs? They noted that the reasoning is sort of circular -- for infants who were EBF to six months, breast milk was enough. But that’s because it was enough, and they didn’t ask for more. Babies who got solids earlier might have done so because breast milk wasn’t enough for them.
This section also asked if babies were getting enough iron. If you had a low birth weight baby and you EBF, you might want to watch out for anemia and/or consider an iron supplement.
And then, of course, there are allergies: We’ve all noticed how more kids seem to be allergic to weird stuff than when we were kids. Something’s not adding up. The researchers in this paper took a closer look at data on introduction of solids and found that kids who had gluten allergies were more likely to have gotten gluten before three months or after six months. Kids who start solids that include gluten between four and six months have fewer gluten allergies and a lower incidence of celiac disease. Dayum!
So, to recap: Breast is still best, if you can manage it, and nobody (least of all me) is here to make you feel bad if you tried and had to supplement. But while solids before three months are a no-no, they are a yes-yes if your baby shows signs of wanting them between four and six months.
Does that make sense? Good. Now everybody relax and have some whole-grain cereal.
Image via Jencu/Flickr