The first two years of life provide a critical window of opportunity for ensuring children’s appropriate growth and development through optimal feeding. After the question of breastfeeding versus formula feeding, your next crucial decision involves when and how to introduce solid food.
If you’re confused because too many people have been giving unsolicited advice, or if your pediatrician has not explained in detail, the World Health Organization (WHO) helps explain some issues mainly through its 2009 publication, Infant and Young Child Feeding: Model Chapter for Textbooks for Medical Students and Allied Health Professionals, and other publications on infant nutrition.
Exclusive breastfeeding for six months before solid foods WHO recommends exclusive breastfeeding for six months, based on the conclusions at the 2001 Geneva consultation after reviewing some 3,000 published scientific literature on the optimal duration of exclusive breastfeeding. According to Infant and Child Feeding, “if the breastfeeding technique is satisfactory” it is not nutritionally necessary to begin complementary feeding before then, since breast milk provides all the nourishment the baby needs.
Watch for developmental signals For formula-fed babies, the WHO provides less information. But, take your cue from her neuromuscular capabilities to determine her readiness: holding her head erect, sitting with or without support, or the disappearance of the gag reflex (meaning, if she can swallow semi-solid foods without difficulty). Better yet, ask your pediatrician about her functional maturity, particularly as regards her digestive and excretory capacity, and defenses against diarrhea, infections, and allergies.
The risks of commencing too early A short-term effect of early introduction is the decrease in the frequency and intensity of the baby’s sucking reflex, leading to less intake of breast milk, which still provides essential nutrients. It has also been observed that the introduction of cereals can interfere with the absorption of iron, an essential nutrient for baby. In the long term, inappropriate nutrition can lead to illnesses in adulthood. For instance, early feeding of solids may result in childhood obesity, which studies correlate to obesity in adulthood. Further, there are more chances of creating food habits that lead to undesirable dietary practices, such as the preference for salty foods, which may be blamed for diseases later in life.
The disadvantages of starting too late An infant’s need for energy and nutrients is the main reason for nutrition, and when this need starts to exceed what is provided by milk, complementary feeding becomes necessary to fill the energy and nutrient gap. If you delay giving solid foods, or if they are given inappropriately, an infant’s growth may falter, she may have micronutrient deficiencies and may be susceptible to infectious illnesses.
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