Giving your baby solid food early won’t help them sleep better
New research claims that giving babies solid foods at just three months old will help them sleep. Though this may sound appealing to exhausted new parents, unfortunately there is a large gulf between the headlines and the data.
Much of the published evidence in this area actually shows the opposite, that what a baby eats has nothing to do with their sleep. In 2015 we found that neither breast nor formula milk, timing of solids introduction, nor the amount of solids eaten affected how often babies woke up at six to 12 months.
Another study has found that the common practice of adding rice cereal to a bottle before bed (which should be avoided as it can cause choking) has no impact on sleep at four months old. While a third found that early introduction of solids was associated with less sleep at 12 months old.
The recent study is an excellent example of how statistically significant differences and real world differences can be miles apart. The authors themselves note that no difference in waking was seen until five months old, despite one group having solids from three months.
From then, babies in the early introduction group may have technically slept more, but this amounted to an average of just seven minutes more a night. At its maximum (six months old) the difference was 16 minutes. Most babies in the study still woke up once or twice a night whatever they were fed. And given these figures are based on the self-reporting of sleep deprived parents – which often does not match up to sleep recordings – this is not a basis for making major changes in infant feeding practices.
There is no physiological reason why introducing solid foods early would help a baby sleep. First, babies (after the first few weeks) do not simply wake at night because they are hungry. Just like adults, they wake because they are cold, uncomfortable or simply want comfort. The difference being that they cannot always soothe themselves back to sleep.
Second, even if it were for hunger, the most sensible solution would be to offer additional milk, as it will give more energy, fat and protein than any other food you can give a baby. The aim of the trial from which this data came was not to increase overall energy intake, but to test how introduction of allergenic foods at three versus six months affects the development of allergies (which it did not).
The parents were advised to give very small amounts of allergenic foods (such as one egg, 25g fish and 100g yogurt spread over a week – just a few spoonfuls a day) alongside rice, cereals, fruit and vegetables. All of these foods are lower in calories than breast or formula milk but take up more room, meaning babies might even eat a little less as they get used to weaning – a potential explanation for the larger sleep gap at six months as the standard group got used to food.