If you belong to any parenting groups or follow any parenting blogs online, there is a good chance you’ve heard the phrase “food before one is just for fun.” Proponents of this idea typically believe that breast milk or formula can and should meet all of a child’s feeding needs during the first year of life. So where did this idea come from, and just how accurate is it?
Many American and international health organizations recommend breastfeeding babies for the first 12 months of life, which appears to lend credence to the popular phrase. The rising prevalence of feeding practices like extended breastfeeding and baby led weaning may also contribute to the belief that babies will wean themselves off of breast milk or formula and begin consuming more solids when they are ready. Parents who do a little more research, however, may find evidence that food before one is not just for fun. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants are exclusively breastfed for about the first six months, at which time breastfeeding should be supplemented with “appropriate complementary foods” until babies pass the 12 month mark. Similarly, the World Health Organization also promotes the introduction of “nutritionally adequate and safe complementary foods” to babies between 6 and 12 months “to meet their evolving nutritional requirements.” In this post, we have asked several experts from Kennedy Krieger Institute’s interdisciplinary feeding team to share their opinions on this hot topic.
First, there are several important nutritional benefits to introducing solids before a baby’s first birthday. One of our registered dietitians, Stephanie Brown, shares her perspective:
“With respect to nutrient needs, the nutrient needed most before a baby’s first birthday is iron, then vitamin C. An infant’s stored iron supply from birth runs out after the birth weight doubles, which is long before 1 year of age. To prevent iron deficiency, it is recommended to provide iron-fortified cereals and then meat or meat alternatives such as legumes. Once infants are eating iron-fortified cereal, we recommend the introduction of vitamin C foods to help with absorption. The best sources of vitamin C are fruits and vegetables. By 1 year of age, breast milk does not meet 100% of a child’s nutrition needs. By gradually introducing complementary foods in infancy, the child will be at an advantage and will minimize their likelihood of not meeting their nutrition needs. For reliable information about which baby foods are safest to introduce to your infant, you can visit https://www.healthybabyfood.org/.”
Next, there are a few reasons that introducing solids between 6-12 months can be beneficial to sensory and oral motor development. Katherine Stevens, an occupational therapist from our feeding program, chimes in:
“Solids foods offered before the age of one are important for developing oral motor skills. Once a baby is showing readiness cues, including sitting unsupported, reaching for foods, and bringing items towards the mouth, it is a good time to start introducing solids (unless told otherwise by your pediatrician). Solid foods require a different set of skills and muscles than the breast/bottle use. Learning to manage foods starts as a reflex, but becomes a learned skill through practice and exposure. By delaying the introduction of solids, a biological window for learning to eat is missed and it is much harder for the child to learn to chew and swallow later.”
Lastly, there are a few behavioral benefits to introducing solids between 6-12 months. One of our behavioral psychologists, Hailey Ormand, gives us her take:
“Developing a mealtime routine with your infant serves a few important functions. By placing them in a high chair and feeding them for a set period of time, your child learns early on that we sit while we eat and that meals occur at certain times of day. Establishing this routine can help prevent grazing down the road, which can negatively affect both their meal volume and variety. Additionally, by presenting solids in a non-self-fed format before children become more independent as toddlers, we are also able to ensure that our little ones try a variety of flavors and textures. Although it is normal for children to have preferences for certain foods, such as fruits, we want to continue to expose them to foods from all food groups to help them learn to tolerate less preferred foods as well. This approach protects against picky eating later in life by teaching kids that eating our favorite foods is a bit of a treat rather than a mealtime rule or expectation.”
As you can see, introducing solids before your child’s first birthday offers a number of developmental and nutritional benefits. While we recognize that breastmilk or formula should continue to meet most of your child’s nutritional needs between 6-12 months, we think it’s a good idea to begin offering solids when your child’s pediatrician feels they are developmentally ready. Starting structured meals before your child’s first birthday can be a fun activity for both parent and child, and can help set your child up for mealtime success later in life.