Introducing Solid Foods to Babies:
A Bit of History & Cultural Influence
So what exactly is the introduction of solid foods (or “diversification alimentaire”)? It is that time when parents or caregivers start offering other types of foods than milk (breastmilk or formula) to babies.
But here’s the thing, between your pediatrician’s recommendations, books, family and friends’ opinions, countries and cultures, and everything we read online, the advice we receive can vary drastically, and potentially even conflict with each other. But why? How to know what’s right? When to start? This is all too confusing!
From donkey’s milk to pap!
When it comes to first foods for babies, breastfeeding and formula were never the only options. Babes were fed via bottles and more ingenious feeding apparatus – cows milk out of terracotta pots, Europeans at the time of the Renaissance fitted cows’ horns with leather nipples, in the US, babies were sometimes fed donkey’s milk, or pap – a curious (often toxic) mixture of bread and liquid boiled to a pulpy texture. I kid you not! So as long as there have been parents, doctors, and babies, we’ve had conflicting information about what’s best for a baby. So that’s something of a relief actually. We’re not alone.
The rise of commercial baby foods
If we were to look at more recent history, the typical age at which parents in the US introduced babies to solid food fell from 12 months in the 1880s to 2 months in the 1960s. This had a lot to do with the introduction of mass-produced, affordable baby food and baby formulas. There was not also not a lot of scientific evidence at this time that you shouldn’t feed young babies solid foods. Advertisers and manufacturers, of course, were eager to have mothers introduce foods at ever younger ages. The tides turned again in the 1970s, when mothers went back to breastfeeding after studies revealed that the salts and sugars and preservatives in commercial food weren’t a good diet for babies, and scientific evidence indicated that it’s probably not the best thing to feed an infant solids so early.
Decreasing the odds of allergies
In the 1980s to the 2000s, studies carried out by scientists showed that later introduction of allergenic foods such as eggs, fish or nuts, meant less frequent allergies in children, which pushed some parents to put off solid food introduction to 7 or 8 months old. Since then and after conducting more studies, experts have come to realize that delaying the introduction of highly allergenic foods does not in fact provide protection against allergies. On the contrary, avoiding them might even increase the odds of developing them. We will dive more on this in the allergies section but with that said, experts now identified the ideal window between 4 and 6 months to start exposing babies to these foods.
WHO’s current recommendations for solid food introduction is 6 months
Since 2002, the World Health Organization recommends that complementary foods should not be introduced until 6 months of age and babies should be exclusively breastfed (or formula-fed) before that. Several organizations followed suit and updated their recommendations to align with WHO.
And what about cultural influence?
A study conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics shows that parents often base their baby feeding decisions on their own experience or the one of their family, socioeconomic circumstances and cultural beliefs. The choice of first foods also varies depending on the country of origin. Age ranges and practices are very diverse from when and what to introduce, to what is an appropriate quantity of food.
So where does that leave us?
Baby knows best. Within reason.
We all possess an innate wisdom of how to best nourish ourselves. Babies are no different. When given the opportunity and presented with healthy options, babies know how much to eat and which food they need. There are ways to identify signs of readiness in babies and choosing the right method for them and the family, which we will cover as well.
Trust yourself. And science.
If you read a book from the 80’s or 90’s, advice will most likely vary. Some sources online might not take into account the latest research and studies leaving parents confused and a bit lost. Let’s not even get started on our own parents’ advice from 20 or 30 years ago. So trusting the latest recommendation from a well-respected organization is a safe route to take so as to not get confused. Trust yourself, science, and follow your baby’s cues.
“No culture has a monopoly on wisdom or absurdity”
– Jellife D.
Child Nutrition in Developing Countries: A Handbook for Fieldworkers. Washington, DC: United States Public Health Service; 1968
Bébé Foodie is all about understanding, making life easier and getting through the introduction of solid foods, guilt-free, hassle-free and pressure-free. As a French mother raising my son in the USA, following guidelines and recommendations while embracing and respecting one’s culture, means that I have a deep respect for our diversity in opinions, preferences and cultural norms. No two babies are the same.
Finally, always consult with a pediatrician
Check in with your baby’s pediatrician, before introducing complementary foods to your child. Whatever happens, and whatever advice you read or get from your circle of friends and family, always consult with a healthcare professional who will know your baby’s health history and background and will be able to give you the go ahead!
Ready for the ride?
I’m so grateful you’ve chosen Bébé Foodie to guide and advise you and your family in this foodie adventure. Remember, it’s all about discovery, fun and flexibility, with minimum fuss! So let’s begin!