Current guidelines from both the NHS and World Health Organisation recommend that parents wait until infants are about six months old before giving them solid food. According to new research, however, babies who are given solid food at a younger age sleep better than babies who are breastfed alone.
The study was published on Monday in JAMA Pediatrics by researchers at King’s College London, and St George’s, University of London.
The team randomly divided 1,303 healthy three-month-olds from England and Wales into two groups. Parents of the first group of babies were asked to exclusively breastfeed their infants for the first six months of life, in line with standard feeding advice in the UK.
The other group was asked to begin introducing solid food into the infants’ diets at three months, while also continuing to breastfeed. The babies in the second group were given a variety of solid food, including common allergens such as eggs, wheat and peanuts.
Researchers then monitored the children’s health and behaviour through parent-completed questionnaires up until three years of age, in addition to assessing the mothers’ quality of life.
They found that the group of children introduced to solid foods early experienced fewer sleep problems, slept longer and woke up less often during the night.
The most significant differences between the two groups were observed at six months. Babies that consumed solid food earlier slept nearly 17 minutes longer per night (almost 2 hours longer per week) than those that exclusively breastfed. Children that ate solid food earlier woke up an average of 1.74 times at night compared to the two times per night observed among the group that consumed breast milk alone.
Maternal sleep problems were also reported less by the group of mothers whose infants were given solid food.
Co-lead author Dr Michael Perkin, from St George’s, University of London said in a statement that even small differences in children’s sleeping habits can have a big impact for parents: “Given that infant sleep directly affects parental quality of life, even a small improvement can have important benefits.”
Lead author Gideon Lack, a professor at King’s College London, added: “The results of this research support the widely held parental view that early introduction of solids improves sleep.”
Lack noted that although “official guidance is that starting solid foods won’t make babies more likely to sleep through the night, this study suggests that this advice needs to be re-examined in light of the evidence we have gathered.”
BBC News reports that current guidelines on infant feeding are being reviewed.
In response to the study, Professor Mary Fewtrell, nutrition lead at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health who was not involved in the study, said: “These are interesting findings from a large randomised controlled trial.”
She said that RCPCH currently recommends “that mothers should be supported to breastfeed their healthy-term infant exclusively for up to six months, with solid foods not introduced before four months.”
However, Fewtrell noted that the existing recommendations are based on 10-year-old evidence and are “currently being reviewed in the UK by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition. We expect to see updated recommendations on infant feeding in the not too distant future.”