(USA TODAY) - Forty percent of mothers start feeding their babies solid food before the recommended minimum age of 4 months old, says a new study. And many said their health care provider gave them the go-ahead.
Moms who gave babies formula were twice as likely as those who exclusively breast-fed to start solids too early (53% to 24%), says the study in the April issue of Pediatrics, released online today.
Understanding parents' motivations is important, because a number of health problems are associated with the early introduction of solid foods, says study co-author Kelley Scanlon, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These findings "don't offer a full understanding why, but they give us some insight," she says.
The moms cited reasons such as, "My baby was old enough," and, "It would help my baby sleep longer at night."
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the head and neck control and overall coordination that infants need to safely eat solids does not develop until around 4 months. In addition, the early introduction of solids may increase the risk of some chronic diseases, such as diabetes, obesity, eczema and celiac disease, the study notes.
Giving solids too soon also ends exclusive breast-feeding, which the AAP recommends for about the first 6 months because of numerous health benefits for infants, including reduced risk of respiratory and ear infections, diarrhea, diabetes, obesity and sudden infant death syndrome.
A bit of cereal added to a bottle of formula is sometimes recommended by physicians for babies with reflux, says Lana Gagin, a pediatrician at the Helen DeVos Children's Hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich. She was not involved in the study. From a medical standpoint, however, "There is no good, solid evidence that it helps a baby sleep," she says.
In the study, researchers analyzed information collected almost monthly from 1,334 mothers on when and why they introduced solid food during infants' first year.
"We didn't expect to see so many (give solids) before 4 months," says Scanlon. She says the finding in this study that 40.4% do so is higher than previous findings that range from 19% to 29%. Unlike most past studies, which surveyed mothers two or three years after they first introduced solids, the new study asked moms to recall what was fed during the previous seven days.
Among other findings:
• Mothers who introduced solid food before 4 months were more likely to be younger, unmarried, have less education or be participating in the federal Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program.
• 8% said they introduced solid food as early as 1 month or younger, including 11% who formula-fed only and 5% who breast-fed only.
• 89% of moms who introduced solid food early said they did so because their baby was old enough to begin eating solids; 71% said the baby seemed hungry a lot; 67% said the baby wanted the food I ate or showed interest in solid food; 8% said the baby had a medical condition that might be helped by eating solid food.
Although 56% of moms who introduced solids early said a medical provider recommended that their baby begin eating solid food early: "We don't know actually what advice the health care provider gave. But at least this was the perception the parents got - that this was the time to begin solids," says Scanlon.
That finding underscores the importance of pediatricians and other providers giving clear, accurate and supportive advice to parents, says Gagin.
"We sometimes wait until (parents) come in for the 4-month well visit to discuss complementary foods, when introducing the subject during the 2-month check might be better," she says. "We may not spend enough time explaining why they should wait and explaining that every time a baby cries doesn't mean they're hungry."
Written By Michelle Healy, USA TODAY