I Deleted A Friend’s Facebook Comment Yesterday
To be frank, sometimes I am a chicken. I want to hold hands and sing Kumbaya, but she wanted to know what I thought of the post, Why Start Solids at 4-6 Months”, where Cheeselave writes:
Around the age of 4 to 6 months, supplementation from solid foods is necessary, as breast milk does not contain specific nutrients that are needed by the baby by the time he reaches 4-6 months old.
As you can imagine, not a lot of Kumbaya going on over on that post. The two nutrients that Ann Marie mentions are iron and zinc. So – because I immediately regretted deleting the post and will not do it again – the big question we’re going to tackle today is: Is breastmilk enough for the 4-6 month old? Okay then, let’s jump in!
But First . . .
I’d like to say that Ann Marie and I are friends and she saw the nuts and bolts of this post before it went live. No drama here. In fact, I’m pretty sure she will hold my hand and sing Kumbaya! Now let’s get started . . .
In her book Real Food for Mother & Baby Nina Planck says:
Your milk, and the milk of all mammals, lacks iron. In addition to being iron-poor, milk also contains lactoferrin, which ties up any random iron floating about. At first glance, this seems like an error, given that all living things need iron. With such a firm hand limiting the availability of iron to the nursling we must suspect a deliberate strategy on nature’s part.
Sure enough, there is logic to the missing iron. E. coli, the most common source of infant diarrhea in all species, depends on iron, as do other pathogens. As mentioned in the discussion of prenatal iron supplements, sequestering iron – keeping it out of the way of hungry microbes – is the body’s response to infection.
A low-iron diet protects newborns from iron-loving microbes. As iron expert Sharon Moalem described it to me, lactoferrin is like an armored truck: it transports iron safely to its destination, protecting it from marauding bacteria. Breast milk, in other words, is iron-poor by design. What iron it contains is easily aborbed by your baby.
But That’s About Newborns!!!
What about as baby gets to the 4-6 month range? Well, studies show that breast milk changes composition over time to meet the varied nutritional demands of infants/babies/toddlers. For example, milk from women who have been nursing longer than one year has a substantially higher fat content.¹ Around 4-6 months the iron content of breast milk remains low. So that means babies must not need it at that particular stage in development, right?
Not so fast.
According to Dr. Nancy Krebs, their iron and zinc needs do increase at this stage. But I wonder, does the fact that breast milk continues to be iron-poor tell us something about how things are supposed to go here? I think so.
Babies are ready for more “tummy time” around 4 months and start crawling around 6-8 months. This means that the time they begin to need more iron **just happens** to coincide with when they will be coming into contact with the ground more. Before the last few hundred years that would have meant coming into contact with dirt, which contains . . . IRON and ZINC!! (Or at least it should . . . modern farming practices, ugh!) So babies poke around in it and then suck on their fingers . . . voila! Iron goals attained. As a bonus, soil contains beneficial bacteria that trigger the release of serotonin, train the immune system and benefit digestion.
I believe that breast milk composition reflects an innate understanding of how this process is supposed to unfold. Kinda takes the “I Make Milk – What’s Your Superpower?” saying to a whole new level, huh?
Of course, in addition to our sterile modern environments there is one more obstacle to making sure babies have adequate iron stores: immediate cord clamping after birth. According to the British Medical Journal, waiting for at least three minutes to clamp the umbilical cord following birth improves a baby’s iron levels at four months. Children whose healthcare providers wait to cut the cord experience numerous benefits, including an infusion of 1-2 months worth of iron (27-47 mg) and a blood volume increase of 25-40% over babies whose cords were cut right away. ²
So What Does This Mean For Baby’s First Foods?
Personally, I believe it means we should interfere less and trust more when it comes to birth, breastfeeding, and weaning. We should eat nutrient rich diets – the idea that baby “gets all they need” despite bad food choices is pure hooey – and introduce our babies to nutrient foods when they are ready.
So what does this look like? Although spoon feeding has become accepted method for introducing solids, a new approach is gaining in popularity that deserves attention. Baby Led Weaning encourages parents to skip the spoon and let babies feed themselves. Although I don’t agree with the nutritional advice in their book, authors Gill Rapley and Tracy Murkett do make a compelling argument that babies don’t learn the proper swallowing/gag reflex if there are fed primarily by a spoon. In addition, there is the risk of overeating when another person is in control.
Many mamas worry that their baby or child isn’t eating enough. Food is intrinsically linked with nurturing and love: we all want to show our babies how much we love them and feeding them is one way to do this. At the same time, we can feel a sense of rejection when our child turns down the food we have prepared for them. These emotions, combined with unrealistic expectations of how much food babies should eat, meant that many babies – and older children – are regularly persuaded to eat more than they need. This can mean that the child simply learns to overeat or, in extreme cases, it can lead to problems such as food refusal or phobias; either way, the development of normal appetite control is at risk.
Persuading young babies to eat food they don’t want is especially easy to do if they are spoon-fed, Babies who are allowed to feed themselves will naturally manage their own intake – they simply stop eating when they are full.”14
In addition, spoon feeding can “encourage babies to eat more quickly than they would do naturally, interfering with the sensation that tells them when they have had enough. Eating too fast is another food behavior that has been linked with obesity in adults and children.”
It is often said that many breastfed babies mostly taste and explore (aka play with) foods until 8-15 months. That is my experience with my own children. Neither of them expressed the slightest interest in food at 4-6 months, so instead of trying to coax them to eat I just bought microbe rich dirt from my local organic supplier and let them play in it. It was my way of getting them iron/zinc in a way that was natural.
No baby should be force-fed at 4-6 months, but of course this is not what the Weston A. Price Foundation is saying. They encourage parents to watch for signs of readiness, etc. Mine were not ready so I found another way. Other moms in my circle have shared that their babies reached for food very early. As long as low milk supply due to breastfeeding problems (like Micah’s tongue tie) has been ruled out I say go for it!
My favorite “first food” is fermented cod liver oil rubbed on a baby’s bum. This is, of course, recommended by the Weston A. Price Foundation. According to Dr. Campbell-McBride the skin will only absorb whatever vitamin A & D it needs from cod liver oil so I don’t worry about giving too much. The other two foods recommended are egg yolk (which is extremely close to breast milk in terms of digestibility and nutrient profile) and shaved raw liver (a nutrient dense superfood).
Ironically, neither of these were Micah’s first foods. Each baby has internal wisdom about what their body needs. We were drinking a lot of bone broth at the time and that is what he showed interest in, so that’s what we went with. Does that mean any food is acceptable? Eh, I don’t think so. I felt comfortable offering broth because Dr. Campbell-McBride recommends it as a first food to help seal the leaky gut.
What’s That, You Ask?
Basically, babies are born with naturally leaky guts, meaning that there are little gaps in the gut lining. This is a very good thing because it allows the antibodies from breast milk to flow freely into the bloodstream, providing baby with natural immunities to bacteria and viruses. Also, as babies put things in their mouths the bacteria and/or viruses travel through the digestive tract and into the bloodstream, which is like a mini-training exercise for baby’s immune system.
So leaky gut is good for babies, but only to start! You REALLY want those gaps to seal up before introducing solids in earnest. Here’s why:
A huge glob of proteins – whether they be from rice, or egg, or banana – that enter the bloodstream in an undigested state could be recognized as an invader by baby’s immunonaive system. What does it do? Fight, of course! Baby’s body will create antibodies to combat the invader – i.e. the food. It’s a simple mistake for an immature immune system to make, but it has lifelong consequences. The body will learn to recognize the food as an enemy and will behave accordingly. There’s no magic date the gut seals, but for most babies it seems to be around six months. However, for babies fed commercial formula, the closure often takes longer or doesn’t happen at all.³
Did That Sound Scary?
I’m not trying to sensationalize fears about introducing foods too early. Unless a family has a history of allergies I think it’s really a non-issue with the Baby Led Weaning approach. Historically children have put ALL KINDS of things in their mouths – it is natures way of priming their immune system. When a baby chooses to taste something here and there of their own volition it’s a gradual process. That’s a totally different picture than coaxing heaping spoonfuls into the mouth of a little one. So in my opinion there’s no need to fear early solids any more than you would fear your baby gnawing on a stick or leaf. As long as they are at the developmental age where they can sit up and put things in their mouths I think it’s fine.
In my mind, it’s kinda like the issue of when to introduce grains. Babies don’t produce pancreatic amylase (the enzyme needed to digest grains) until they’re at least a year old, sometimes two! So, how can a momma know when to introduce properly prepared grains? When her baby’s molars come in! That’s usually at the same time that they start producing pancreatic amylase. In other words, there are visible, outward signs of baby’s internal digestive development.
In the same way, babies have outward, visible signs of being ready to eat solids — namely sitting up on their own, developing the pincer grasp, and losing the tongue reflex that pushes food out of the mouth. (Essentially, when they are able to feed themselves.) For both of my children, this happened somewhere between 6 to 8 months old. They weren’t “late bloomers” or anything of the sort, this is just how their little bodies grew. I’ve met 4 months old that could do all these things, and I totally marveled since it was so outside my own experience.
And In Case You’re Wondering . . .
I did spoon feed Micah the broth. Hypocritical, I know! But from that point forward I ditched the spoon and let him eat what he was interested in, which happened to be meat/liver and vegetable stews prepared in digestion enhancing broth. He made a huge mess, but letting babies eat with their hands is very helpful for developing manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination. And besides, it doesn’t matter how much they get in their mouths at first. The goal is to help them explore new tastes in a fun and exciting way so they’ll become adventurous eaters. So yeah, let’s focus on our babies instead of timetables, offer but don’t pressure, and relax!
What do YOU think???
Questions about baby nutrition? Check out my new ebook, Nourished Baby!
» Motherhood » When Should My Baby Start Solids?