How early is too early to start introducing solid foods?
I am often contacted by parents whose baby of 22-24 weeks is showing interest in solid food. They are wary of starting too early, yet feel their baby is giving them a clear lead that s/he is ready. While I am unable to offer specific guidance for individual babies, my general response to this dilemma is as follows.
The 6-months ‘rule’
I always refer to the 6-months ‘rule’ because it keeps babies safe from premature interference with their eating. However, my actual position, based on my research and clinical experience, is that whatever an individual baby is ready to do is probably what’s right for that baby. There is good reason to believe that those developmental abilities that are visible to us (sitting upright etc.) are a reliable indicator of the maturity of that baby’s (internal) digestive system – nature very rarely makes mistakes. So, if a full-term, healthy baby can (genuinely) sit upright, grasp food and get it to his mouth UNAIDED, then he’s probably ready to do just that. If he’s also ready to chew it – and perhaps even swallow it – that’s fine, but it is more likely that these skills will follow in due course.
I make a point of emphasizing the six months ‘rule’, even though I don’t consider it to be cast in stone. This is because it’s all too easy for those who don’t understand the concept of BLW to misinterpret any suggestion that starting earlier than this is acceptable. This can be the beginning of a slippery slope into dangerous practices, which I absolutely do not condone.
What is the ultimate goal?
The problem is that it’s tempting to see more ability in one’s child than is actually there, and to offer that little bit of help to enable them to achieve a particular goal. This includes: providing extra support to sit up or reach out, guiding their arm towards their mouth, or – worse – putting the food into their mouth ‘for them’. Mostly, this doesn’t matter, but when it comes to eating, a baby’s ability – or inability – to manage the necessary sequence of actions is an important safety factor. ‘Helping’ them over a hurdle they cannot yet manage for themselves is potentially hazardous.
It’s useful to remember that the ‘achievement’ of eating is the adult’s goal, not the child’s. The baby doesn’t know that’s what the point of all this is. She is just finding out how her own body, and the things around her, work. If she doesn’t manage to get the food to her mouth, sowhat? She hasn’t ‘failed’ – and she has no sense of needing help. Her parents’ role is to give her the OPPORTUNITY to do whatever she is ready to do. Whether that be touching food, picking it up, licking it, biting it, chewing it and/or swallowing it – or none of the above – not to enable her to do something she can’t yet manage. Six months represents an average age of readiness, in the same way that most babies take their first step around their firstbirthday.
Is 6 months the ‘magic’ age?
Clearly some will be ready to walk earlier – and some later – than that. We don’t try to prevent those who are ready earlier from walking before the ‘correct’ age. If we are prepared to accept that a good proportion of babies will not be ready to feed themselves with solid foods until they are seven, eight or nine months, then it is perfectly reasonable to allow that there will also be a few who may begin before they reach the ‘magic’ age of six months. The crucial point, as I see it, is that the move should be spontaneous and autonomous.
In my opinion, arguments about the ‘right’ age for introducing solid foods are important only if it’s the parent, not the baby, who decides when putting food into her/his mouth should begin – as happens, of course, with spoon feeding. Such arguments are redundant if the decision is made by the baby because all babies develop eating skills in a set sequence, in line with their overall maturity. Theoretically, there is no reason why a baby of one or two months old should not be offered the opportunity to sit upright and pick food up from a plate.
What stops this being a sensible option is not that this is the ‘wrong’ age but that the baby simply isn’t capable of it. The same would apply at three, four and five months. It is extremely unlikely that any infant under about five and a half months would, without any ‘help’, be able to get more than a taste of solid food. Those that can are the exception, not the rule. Provided this is fully understood, starting solids ‘early’ does not, in my view, constitute a problem.
What are the words to describe what is happening?
A key challenge in all this is that we don’t have the right words to describe the introduction of solid foods when the baby is in control. ‘Starting solids’ with spoon feeding and purees means someone else putting food into the baby’s mouth on a day decided by them. But ‘starting solids’ using BLW simply means providing babies with the opportunity to eat if and when they want to and are able to. It’s up to the baby to take it from there.
Before doing Baby-Led Weaning (BLW) with your baby, it is important to proceed safely by contacting a pediatric registered dietitian. Among other things, make sure that:
- your baby is ready and does not start too early
- your baby is sitting at 90 degrees
- you do not place food in his/her mouth with your fingers
- the environment is calm during meals
- you offer the right foods to your baby
- you watch your baby eat at all times
- you contact a pediatric registered dietitian to make sure you are proceeding safely
- you read the warning below
BLW is contraindicated for babies at risk of dysphagia, such as babies who have an anatomic disorder (cleft palate, tongue tie), a neurological disorder (developmental delay, hypotonia, oral hypotonia) or a genetic disorder. Follow-up by a health professional (doctor, pediatric registered dietitian) is necessary for babies at risk of anemia such as babies born prematurely, babies with low birth weight (less than 3000 g), worries related to growth, babies born to an anemic mother, baby for whom cow’s milk was introduced early and/or a vegan baby.
*Cusson and Labonté, Baby-Led Weaning Conference, June 2018, Nutrium, Faculty of Medicine, University of Montreal
To get all the information you need about introducing complementary foods, sign up for my online course at blw.jessicacoll.com . You’ll get my unlimited support and all the answers to your questions.