Doctors recommend feeding babies solid foods sooner

SEATTLE -- While the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) previously recommended parents wait until their children are 6 months old before introducing them to solid foods, new research suggests babies may benefit from trying their first foods sooner.

The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology released a study in January that found babies who started eating solid foods at 4 months old had a reduced risk of allergies and asthma.

Likewise, AAP published a study in December showing that infants who were fed solid foods at 4 months had higher iron levels than those who were exclusively breast-fed until 6 months old.

Doctors at Seattle Children's Hospital are taking note and now recommend parents begin introducing their babies to solid foods at 4 months.

But, Dr. Mollie Grow, a pediatrician at Children's and a mother of two, said children are not all ready for solid foods at the same age. While her first baby wasn't ready until 6 months old, Grow said her younger daughter started when she was closer to 5 months.

"You have to look for the signs," she said.

Grow said parents should offer babies solid foods if they notice them watching adults eat, smacking or licking when they smell food or opening their mouths when they are offered a spoonful of food.

No matter what age the child is, Grow said parents should not force an infant to start eating solid foods. If they close their lips or turn their head away, she says stop and try again the next day.

"If babies show they are not able to effectively accept food or are not interested we don't ever want to push it."

Grow said parents shouldn't just think about when they introduce solid foods, but should also carefully consider what foods they give babies.

"Parents should think about what they want their kids to be eating for the rest of their lives," Grow said. "You're laying down the foundation for their metabolism for life."

Rather than serving them rice cereal, which Grow said was previously recommended, children should be fed fresh fruits and vegetables, beans and whole grains. She says plain yogurt can also be great for babies' digestion.

"We've learned that fresh foods - especially fruits and vegetables - and variety in our diets provides the best nutrients our bodies need for optimal growth and performance," Grow said.

Grow also urged parents to try making their own baby food. She said fresh foods tend to be more nutritious while processed foods often contain extra sugar, salt or fat.

"It was really satisfying to give fresh, tasty foods to our kids," Grow said. "Things we would want to eat."

Mothers can increase the likelihood that their child will accept nutritious foods by eating these themselves. When a child is exposed to a particular food through breast milk, Grow said they are more likely to accept it as a solid food.

Parents should be patient with their children, Grow said. One week a child may love a particular food, and another day they could hate it.

"Our responsibility is to provide the environment and opportunities to eat well," Grow says. "If one thing does not work, try something else."

When in doubt, Grow recommended mixing and matching foods.

"Combine fruits with vegetables and be creative," Grow said. "One of the most popular foods in our house was spinach and pears."

Grow said parents should offer infants a new food every three days. That way, if they have a bad reaction to one meal it is easy to determine which food is the problem.

Even after starting solid foods, Grow said babies still get the majority of their calories from breast milk or formula, so it is important that parents not stop feeding the child milk right away.

Grow also advised parents not try to introduce solid foods to a child before 4 months of age, as this can actually lead to an increase of allergies.