It never ceases to amaze me when I see a mother at a restaurant propping her baby on her lap and trying to shove tiny pieces of table food into its mouth. The baby isn’t even old enough to sit up on its own and barely seems aware of what his mouth does, yet the mother is ripping pieces off of everything she is eating and feeding them to the infant. More often than not, the food dribbles right back out and is wiped onto a waiting bib, but sometimes a bit of it gets swallowed. Nearly all mothers that I have known have not started introducing solid foods to their babies until they were at least six months old, and several have waited even longer. These babies do not seem starved. Quite the opposite, they are healthy, happy, and well-nourished. What, then, is the benefit of offering table foods to tiny infants? Do these foods offer nutritional benefits that they aren’t getting from breast milk? If there aren’t any benefits, are there potential dangers?

Breast milk is the natural, perfect food source for babies. The reason mothers produce it is so they can provide total nutrition and hydration for their babies until those babies are developed to the point at which they can eat solid foods. There is a popular misconception, however, that breast milk is only sufficient for the youngest of babies, and unless a mother eats constantly, she will not provide adequate milk or nutrition for her newborn. The truth is, the vast majority of women produce plenty of nutritionally-rich milk for their babies, and most can fully support their babies’ nutritional needs even beyond the six-month mark. Many pediatricians, however, continue to recommend complementary foods be introduced at the age of six months or soon after. This is because micronutrients, including iron, may be insufficient in breast milk at this age and though the baby will continue to receive the majority of his fat, protein, calories, vitamins, and other nutrients from breast milk, he may need supplementary foods to provide an adequate level of the micronutrients.

Experts caution mothers though, to be very careful in this introduction. Babies do not have the capacity to chew properly and can choke on even very tiny objects. Studies have indicated that infants self-regulate their total energy intake, meaning they will consume essentially the same number of calories worth of complementary foods as they would breast milk. These calories do not necessarily represent nutrition though. Introducing complementary foods too early can also create serious imbalance in your baby’s diet, as these foods will meet his energy needs faster than breast milk, meaning he will be unwilling to eat a variety of foods or consume the milk he needs. This nutritional imbalance isn’t just about the dangers to your baby’s health at that moment, but about the long term implications. Studies have indicated that babies who have complementary foods introduced earlier than the six month mark are at a higher risk for obesity and poor nutrition later in life.

Source: Cohen RJ, et al. Effects of age of introduction of complementary foods on infant breast milk intake, total energy intake, and growth: a randomized intervention study in Honduras. The Lancet; Volume 344, Issue 8918, 30 July 1994, Pages 288-293.