This story was originally published on July 29, 2019
New parents have so many questions about how to feed our babies, and we expect that when experts give us answers, those are as close to absolute truth as we'll get. But a new study from Johns Hopkins has cast a shadow of doubt on the guidelines that hospitals, doctors and other experts have set for how much solid food to give children in the first year of life.
When babies are around 6 months old and ready to start on solid foods, their caregivers often look to guidelines given to them from the Johns Hopkins, the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, or infant formula makers Similac or Enfamil. The study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, tested whether the amount of food suggested by each of those sources leads to babies with a healthy body mass index (BMI).
The scientists at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health used computer models to test this out rather than randomly assigning infants to eating in ways that might impact their health for the rest of their lives. It's a good thing, too, because the found that all four guidelines led to the virtual babies being overweight by the time they were 11 months old.
"It is very important that children aren't overfed during infancy because we know that can lead to weight gain and related health problems later in life, yet the model used in our study showed that following current established guidelines could often lead to overfeeding of the infant," Marie Ferguson, MSPH, the study's first author, said in a press release.
The study did test different variables, including having the virtual caregivers adjust how much they fed based on the computer babies' BMIs. In that scenario, the babies fed on the Similac guidelines fared okay, but the others were still overweight.
When they tested what would happen if caregivers reduced the amount of breast milk given by 50%, the Similac guidelines resulted in the babies being underweight for a few months before getting back up to a more average BMI. The other three groups were still overweight.
Computer babies are not the same as fussy, hungry, roly-poly bundles of joy, obviously. What the study's authors hope this shows is that the guidelines could probably use some work, particularly in the form of including ways to adjust portions based on individual needs.
But for parents, this emphasizes the need to follow these basic tips to ensure a healthy, growing infant:
1. Avoid offering solid foods too early.
The typical time is still six months, but it may be as early as four months, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, as long as the baby shows signs of readiness such as opening their mouth when food comes toward it. They will also probably double their birth weight and have good head control. (If they can't eat from a spoon yet, definitely don't put cereal in a bottle.)
2. Let them tell you when they're full.
It's up to parents to provide nutritious foods to try and to decide when to serve them. When the baby pushes food away, turns their head, seals their lips, or spits out the food, you should not force the issue. The AAP explains responsive feeding here.
3. Continue to offer nutritious foods.
There's no doubt they'll like sweet and salty tastes, but keep on putting good veggies and fruits on that table. Eventually, they'll grow to like something that's good for them.
4. Don't use food as the only source of comfort.
Don't plug every cry with a breast, bottle, or cookie, but see if cuddles, songs and other forms of soothing will work too. Once they're soothed, try to make sure they get plenty of sleep, too, as that's another way to prevent childhood obesity.