Introducing Solids To The Breastfed Baby

Whether we are excited about our baby’s next "rite of passage", are having trouble with breastfeeding or sleeping, or for some other reason, many families today encourage their little ones to start solids early.

Not that long ago experts said it was okay to start solids between 4 & 6 months, and some even say today that it is okay to start solids as early as 3 months! Infants don't begin to develop the enzymes necessary for food digestion until approximately 6 months. Solids can give them a sensation of fullness though, which means they don't nurse as often, which can have a negative impact for breastfeeding parents with a fragile supply. All the major organizations recommend waiting on everything except breastmilk/formula until at least 6 months. 

Many families believe that a baby is ready to start solids when they start reaching for food.  Reaching for food is ONE of the developmental signs of readiness, but there are a number of others as well, and they need to be viewed as a whole:

Baby shows interest in solids (reaching for your plate for instance).

Baby is able to sit independently, without support (ie not supported in a bumbo chair or high chair).

Baby is able to turn their head away, or use their hands, to refuse food.

Baby is developing pincer grasp (the ability to pick up small items using their thumb and forefinger).

Baby is losing their tongue thrust reflex. The tongue thrust reflex is a protective mechanism for young babies which causes them to use their tongue to push anything out of their mouth that their body isn't ready for.  So if you put cereal in their mouth and their little tongue pushes it forward, then they are not developmentally ready for that food.  You can of course with practice get past that reflex, but you're better off allowing it go away on its own when baby is ready.  Like all reflexes – we have them for a reason and it is generally in our best interest not to over-ride them! 

There are of course exceptions to every rule, and your situation may be one which requires baby to have solids before all the developmental signs of readiness are present.  Unfortunately it is far too common for caregivers to suggest introducing solids early as the solution to a problem, when in reality it only masks the problem rather than addressing it head on.   

Baby nursing around the clock and keeping you awake?  Introduce solids so they sleep better!  
Baby *may* sleep better – because their stomach is full of food they aren’t equipped to digest. But those solids may also cause digestive distress which causes their sleep to deteriorate further.  Either way, because they are not yet ready to digest the food it provides minimal nutritional value, and can interfere with your breastfeeding goals.
Instead, consult with a breastfeeding pro to discuss the particular age & stage your little one is in, and find solutions (such as co-sleeping or side-lying to nurse) to the problem that help you meet your breastfeeding goals.

You’re struggling with breastfeeding and feel like s/he isn’t getting enough?  Introduce solids so they don’t seem hungry/nurse all the time!  
Baby may well nurse less often, but there is no solid food on the planet which compares to the nutritional and immunological content of breastmilk for an infant.  Your baby's diminished feelings of hunger will lead to less frequent nursing, and less milk removed means less milk produced.  This can be devastating to the breastfeeding relationship if your supply is already low or dwindling.  Instead, consult with a breastfeeding pro to find the true source of your struggle, and find a solution which moves you towards your breastfeeding goals.  Perhaps baby has a tongue or lip tie.  Perhaps you have a breast/nipple anomaly. Perhaps your breasts have a small milk storage capacity.  Perhaps baby is going through a growth support. Each of these scenarios can be managed in a way that encourages your breastfeeding relationship rather than compromises it.

Breastfeeding can be hard work.  And just when you think you’ve got it nailed, your baby grows and everything changes again.  Please don’t hesitate to reach out for the help you need.  Talk to other moms you know who are successfully breastfeeding.  Reach out to your doula or midwife.  Contact La Leche League to find a peer support meeting near you.  Or hire an active board certified lactation consultant to work with you one-on-one.  

Breastmilk is what babies were MADE to grow on. While the experts currently say it is okay to start introducing solids when baby is 6 months old or when the signs of developmental readiness are present (whichever comes last in my opinion), remember that “food before 1 is mostly for fun”.  

When you DO decide to start solids, keep it simple and keep it real. While cereals and grains are common 'first foods', they are particularly difficult for the baby to digest as the enzymes needed don't typically develop until later. Iron-rich meats and vegetables are an excellent choice and 'baby led weaning' where the infant is in control of what they put in their mouth is one of the simplest options!

To learn more, please feel free to visit the following sites:

The Virgin Gut

What's Up With the Virgin Gut?

KellyMom on when to start solids

Ask Dr.Sears on 6 good reasons to delay solids

Momtastic on how to know baby is ready for solids

Kim Corrigan-Oliver, Holistic Nutritionist - easy to read nutritional information for mom, baby, and toddler

Baby-Led Weaning: The Mush Stops Here

How To Do Baby Led Weaning & Why You'd Want To

Sarah StogrynComment