Dr Jennifer Cohen is a paediatric nutritionist, dietitian, foodie and mum-of-two. She explains the dangers in the latest study suggesting fuller babies sleep longer.
Solids and sleep for babies
My kid’s were pretty bad sleepers, especially for the first six months of their lives. During those early months of sleepless nights and 45 minutes of sleep followed by two hours of feeding, I would have done everything I could to get even five more minutes of sleep. I also know I am not alone and most new parents and parents of babies have a lot of issues with a lack of sleep.
The new study that has just been published on solids and sleep for babies sounds like a welcome relief for sleep-deprived parents. This new study compared babies who were given solids at around six months with babies who were given solids at around three months of age. Both groups of babies were breastfed and this was a large study of over 1000 babies.
The study found that the babies that were started on solids at three months slept an average of 16 more minutes each night, had less wakings and parents had better quality of life than those who were started at six months.
This sounds amazing doesn’t it?
Why you should avoid starting solids early
I do worry that there is danger in this study and I don’t want parents to start their kids on solids early in the hope their child sleeps a little bit better. Before you start sending me comments about how horrible sleep deprivation is, just remember I do get it. The thing about this study is that it doesn’t look at any other factors that we take into account when deciding on when solids should be started with your baby.
The Australian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA) recommend starting solids at around six months of age. The reason for this recommendation is there is good research that early introduction of allergy foods reduces a child’s risk of getting a food allergy. The recommendation is still around six months as the research doesn’t show that introducing an allergy food before six months has any other benefit. They are leaving the door open for parents to look for signs their child is ready to eat food. They also say not before four months of age.
Introducing solids early is probably not the answer to your sleep problems. Image: iStock.
An added risk
The other area that this paper does not really discuss is the increased risk of kids being overweight who were started on solids early. There is a lot of research showing that kids who were started solids early (before four months) had a higher chance of being overweight as a toddler.
One reason for this increased chance of being overweight with an earlier introduction of solids may be because of a high intake of protein, especially animal protein. I have written a post all about protein and kids which talks about how too much protein may not be a good idea. This new study does discuss the fact that reduced sleep in babies may also be associated with obesity in adulthood but we do not know if an extra 16 minutes sleep will reduce the risk.
Solids are not just about food
Introducing solids to your baby and early food experiences really do lay down a child’s eating habits as they get older and as an adult. I often talk about the fact that eating with kids is about the long game not the short game. I worry when we tell parents that kids will sleep better if they are given more food.
This can easily encourage sleep-deprived parents to override a child’s natural fullness (satiety) cues by pushing more food into a child to make sure they sleep. This can cause such issues with a child’s ability to regulate their appetite when they are older. If a child is not taught about hunger cues as a child this can lead to overeating as an adult. This study on sleep and solids for babies I feel is just reinforcing this thought about sleep and food and I worry about the issues for the kids in future.
There are risk associated with starting solids too soon. Image: iStock.
When should you start solids?
The recommendation for starting solids is very complicated and saying that babies should be started on solids early to help with sleep does not take into account the long term affects that early introduction of solids may have on a baby. This is why studies like this provide a small piece to a very large puzzle but is not enough for me to start recommending early introduction of solids. I will be sticking to the ASCIA guidelines of around six months and not before four months.
- Look for signs that your child is ready to eat which includes showing interest in food
- Make sure your child is able to sit upright before you start solids
- Avoid forcing your child to eat – let your child decide whether they will eat or not
- Remember that starting solids is so much more than nutrition. Starting solids sets up your baby’s eating habits for life. Offer a variety of food flavours, textures and finger foods.
This article first appeared on DrJenniferCohen.com and has been republished here with permission. By Dr Jennifer Cohen.