March 28, 2013

Misty Watson: No solid foods for babies until they’re at least six months old

My daughter has “slept through the night” only a handful of times in her 17 months of life.

I remember early on feeling pressure from other mothers who claim their child began sleeping through the night when they were six weeks old or three months old.

I rarely felt anger or exhaustion to the point of feeling defeated or like I was doing something wrong as a mother. I actually enjoyed my 3 a.m. nursing and snuggling session. I enjoyed pulling Sophie into bed with me at 5 a.m. because that meant I could see her smiling face first thing each morning. I’m not saying there haven’t been points of desperately saying “I just need to sleep.” Maybe since I rarely sleep through the night myself — and I’m 30 years old — it never seemed to cause me any concern that my daughter often wakes up during the night.

But then those well-meaning moms would put pressure on me and make me, as a first-time mom, second guess myself. Maybe I was doing something wrong? Maybe my daughter should be sleeping through the night at three months old?

“Sleep train her,” they said.

“What is she? A dog?” I wondered.

“Let her cry it out,” they said.

“What? But crying is her only means of communicating right now. It means she needs something. What if I put you in a cold, dark room while you’re hungry and make scary sounds outside the window and let you cry it out?” I thought.

“If you put rice cereal in a bottle of breast milk or formula before bed she’ll sleep longer,” they informed me. “Give her solid foods and she’ll start sleeping longer,” they concluded.

That sounded like a legitimate conclusion. She’s waking up wanting to nurse so if I fill her tummy she’ll sleep longer. Oh how naive I was.

I approached the doctor, and he quickly informed me it was way too soon for solids and that I should aim for exclusively breastfeeding my daughter for the first six months. (The same applies to formula-feeding moms. No solids before six months old). Nutritionally speaking, it’s fine for most healthy babies to exclusively breastfeed for the first nine to 12 months.

Turns out, sleeping through the night is another milestone babies will reach on their own, like crawling, walking or saying their first word.

I am so thankful my doctor talked me out of introducing rice cereal or other solids to my daughter before she was six months old. In fact, we skipped rice cereal and purees altogether and opted to introduce foods through a process called baby-led weaning, or baby-led solids. We simply gave Sophie solid food in a way she could handle it and let her feed herself. Think roasted carrot sticks, baked zucchini sticks, apple slices and strips of toast with hummus. People have been amazed to see my daughter feed herself.

We’ve loved it.

But I’m in the minority as a mom.

A study published Monday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the journal Pediatrics surveyed 1,334 mothers and found 40 percent gave their babies solid food before they were four months old and 9 percent of those gave solid food as early as four weeks old, according an article by The New York Times. This is despite the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation to not give babies anything but breast milk for the first six months, and if breast milk is not an option, then formula.

I’m wondering why more mothers don’t know this, but I see how close I was to listening to other well-meaning mothers instead of doing my own research. I look at new information like this: It’s not to make someone feel badly for the choices they made as a mother. It’s not meant to make a mom defensive for giving a child rice cereal at four weeks old. But it’s there to educate and change the way our society approaches this subject.

Just because something has always been done a certain way doesn’t mean it’s the best way. I have read many studies and articles recently on introducing solids too early, which has been linked to an increased risk of obesity and diabetes, and the most recent one I read said it has been linked to celiac disease. Babies’ digestive systems simply aren’t ready for solids until they’re closer to six months old.

Many mothers I talk to introduced solids earlier than six months because they claim they weren’t “producing enough milk.” Nursing a lot is not an indication of a mother not producing enough milk. Babies go through patterns of nursing less and nursing more as they hit growth spurts and developmental leaps. In fact, Sophie is now nursing more like she did as a newborn, which is typical behavior for a 17-month-old. (The same goes for formula-fed babies.)

Others say they wanted their baby to sleep longer at night. That’s where I was, even though I didn’t have a problem with our nighttime routine. Now I realize babies wake up for several reasons through the night, including being cold, teething, having gas, hearing a sound, having shorter sleep cycles than adults, wanting to be comforted and being hungry.

I wonder why we as a society are in a hurry to shove food down babies’ throats. What’s the rush? Is it connected to our society’s urge to rush to food as a source of comfort? To our gluttony?

I don’t know the answer, but I’m going to do everything I can to make sure Sophie has the best start to life possible.

Murray County native Misty Watson is a photographer and staff writer for The Daily Citizen. You can tell her why you think she’s wrong by emailing mistywatson@daltoncitizen.com, on Facebook (facebook.com/MistyWatsonDCN) or on Twitter (@mistydwatson).

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