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Survey: Parents Risk Babies' Health By Feeding Them Solid Food Too Early

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's a big moment for any parent when your infant begins eating solid food. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that transition shouldn't happen until your baby is six months old. But a new survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 40 percent of mothers are giving their babies solid food far earlier, even before the four-month mark. To tell us why this matters and why it's happening, we're joined by Kelley Scanlon, one of the study's authors and an epidemiologist at the CDC. Kelley, welcome to the program.

KELLEY SCANLON: Thank you. Thank you for having us.

CORNISH: So, first, help us understand exactly why aren't infants ready for solid food before four months. What's happening inside their bodies?

SCANLON: Right. Well, younger infants are not developmentally ready for solid foods. There are developmental signs that indicate that an infant is ready for solid foods, such as sitting up and able to take the food off the spoon, even opening their mouth when presented with the food.

But early introduction to solids has also been linked to risk for chronic diseases such as childhood obesity. Early introduction to solids also ends exclusive breastfeeding, which is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics for about six months of life.

CORNISH: Now, when you looked at the characteristics of these women, tell us a little bit more about them.

SCANLON: Right. So we found - in terms of early introduction, we found younger mothers, mothers with less formal education, as well as lower family incomes were more likely to introduce solids early.

CORNISH: And so essentially, is money a factor here, say, the cost of formula or other issues?

SCANLON: We don't know from this study. We also saw higher introduction among families participating in the special supplemental program for women, infants and children where much of the formula is covered.

CORNISH: And as the study mentioned, there were women who also said that they were told it was OK to feed their baby solid foods by their doctors. And was this really surprising? And what's the concern there?

SCANLON: Right. Well, now, we interviewed the mothers, not the health care providers, so we don't know exactly what the information was. But we know at least it was the perception of the mothers that their health care providers said their baby should be getting solids. And about 50 percent of women who introduced early said that that was why they introduced. So that really indicates that health care providers need to provide clear and accurate guidance, but also support parents in carrying out the recommended feeding practices.

CORNISH: There's a school of thought that says solid foods help your baby sleep longer. Where does this come from? And is it hard to shake?

SCANLON: Right. So we did find that about 46 percent of mothers reported that they introduced solids to help their baby sleep longer at night. That is not a reason to introduce solids. In fact, I think other health care providers would say that that does not help the baby sleep longer at night. The recommendation is that before four months, no infant would need solid foods.

CORNISH: Do you think that part of this is that people, you know, they're scared, maybe they're new parents and that they just think, I need to feed my baby something.

SCANLON: Well - and we did find that some - I think it was about 50 percent saying that they wanted to feed their baby something other than milk. But then again, that's why working with your health care provider on what the recommendations are and the potential health impact of introducing early.

CORNISH: Kelley Scanlon, thanks so much for speaking with me.

SCANLON: Thanks.

CORNISH: Kelley Scanlon is an epidemiologist at the CDC and author of a new study that found 40 percent of mothers surveyed are feeding their infants solid foods before they're four months old.

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CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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