(NaturalNews) It is commonplace among modern mothers to begin introducing solid food to their babies as early as 4 months of age, yet babies in more primitive societies were mostly exclusively breastfed until 2 years of age. Given the archeological studies, babies` immature and developing digestive enzyme production, along with evidence that prolonging exclusive breastfeeding may also confer health benefits, it may be time for both moms and nutrition experts to reconsider the timing of a baby`s first introduction to solid foods.
While many pediatricians still recommend starting babies on solid foods between 4 to 6 months of age, the WHO now recommends that babies remain exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life. To prevent allergies and food sensitivities, some doctors now recommend delaying the introduction of solids until baby is at least 12 months of age.
Most experts recommend that if mothers want to delay starting their babies on solids, they should not continue exclusive breastfeeding beyond 9 months. It is assumed that the iron stores in mothers` milk are deficient and may lead to the baby developing anemia.
According to Dr. Linda Palmer who has done extensive research on this subject, most studies on nutritional status, in regards to the delaying of solids, were done on populations where mothers are malnourished. She says that deficiency of iron is more common in breastfed babies, but that this factor co-relates with the introduction of solids, rather than with exclusive breastfeeding itself or because mothers` milk suddenly becomes deficient at 9 months.
This window of deficiency occurs, as the result of a natural physiological shift whereby the iron in baby`s first foods, binds with the mother`s lactoferrin, thus making her iron less bioavailable. The iron that baby does get from food sources, ends up first feeding iron-hungry and less beneficial intestinal bacteria. It is because of this factor that baby has a higher requirement for iron, at least until the intestinal flora rebalances.
So while it seems necessary to at least account for this physiological shift when mothers do introduce solids, what about delaying the inevitable until baby is 12 months or older? Is there any harm in waiting to introduce solids? Once again, according to Palmer, "The few studies performed on extended exclusive breastfeeding are in non-industrialized areas, showing a marginal advantage to beginning supplemental foods by 24 months. The only good studies on fully breastfed infants performed in the US go only as high as 9 months, demonstrating superior health at this age for those who are exclusively breastfed".
According to archeological studies, many human babies had little, if any, foods other than breast milk before two years of age. Palmer concludes, "While I DO think it is natural to have a wide variation in timing for natural infants` introduction to solids, (the initial weaning process), and final weaning, I don`t think it`s naturally common for first foods to begin as early as 6 months in most babies".
What about those experts that feel that we should wait until babies are at least 1 year of age before introducing solids? Is there any merit to these recommendations? David Rowland, author of Digestion: Inner Pathway to Health, says, "Salivary amylase (ptyalin) is not normally present in any appreciable quantity until about six months of age. Pancreatic amylase is not produced in adequate amounts until the molar teeth are fully developed, which may not be until ages 28-36 months". For this reason, he recommends that we should not be feeding babies, bread, crackers and other starchy foods. This advice strongly conflicts with the conventional wisdom that deems iron-fortified cereal to be a baby`s ideal first food.
Palmer disagrees with Rowland; she does not feel that infants have trouble digesting carbohydrates. She feels that gluten-containing grains may pose the biggest challenge. On the other hand, she also disagrees with the conventional perspective. She says, "Iron-fortified cereals have high doses of iron that may stunt growth slightly when not needed. If baby has risk factors for developing anemia, (low iron stores from rapid cord cutting, smoking parent, food-intolerance reactions, lower birth weight), one might consider a blood test around 9 months (or sooner if recommended) to alleviate concerns".
While evolution and physiology seem to suggest that there is no specific time to introduce solids, along with no harm in delaying them, does extending exclusive breastfeeding confer any health benefits?
While there are no studies on exclusive breastfeeding beyond 9 months in industrialized societies, Palmer lists the following in her very informative slide show entitled, "Beyond Breastmilk". The following list conveys the potential benefits of delaying solids: delays iron competition, delays the loss of full immune protection (immune protection extends beyond weaning and lasts even longer the more breast milk baby receives), provides baby with a more "natural feeding progression" and reduces the risks of allergies.
Given that our ancestors in more primitive societies were likely more in tune with nature`s plan for feeding babies, it seems reasonable to call the early introduction of solids into question. Because pancreatic amylase is deficient in babies (until their molars come in) we might as well also question the wide spread introduction of iron fortified cereal grain, as an infant`s first food.
While there is a lot more room for research to be done in this area, delaying solids gives babies` digestive system more time to mature, and may decrease the risk of allergies due to reduced immunity and enzyme deficiency. The evidence suggests that we need not deviate too far from the natural feeding pattern that has thus sustained and ensured the survival of the human race, thus far.
Sherry Rothwell, RHN, CD and mother of two, enjoys writing between "mommying" and camping out in the kitchen! Sherry is accredited by The Canadian School of Natural Nutrition and House of La Matrona School of Holistic Midwifery. Visit her website@ www.wholefoodsfamily.com to find out more about the resources, courses, products and services she offers.