Many new mothers are introducing solid food to their babies before they can handle it, suggests a survey by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

A study published in the April issue of the academy's journal, Pediatrics, found that 40 per cent of mothers are introducing solid food into their child's diet before the age of four months.

Sidney Harper, a nurse with the Fraser Health Authority's Baby Friendly Initiative, says feeding solid foods to a baby too young can set him or her up for allergies, asthma and even food sensitivities.

"The earlier solids are introduced, the more harmful it may be to the child," she said.

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Babies can diversify their diets, but only if they're older, pediatric experts say. (Derek Oliver/Canadian Press)

"Babies have rather porous guts, so they've got holes in these guts where foreign proteins can get through, and that can set a child up for a lifetime of allergies, or asthma, atopic disease, eczema, et cetera."

Women in the study were asked to rate their reasons for switching to solids early, such as:

  • "My baby was old enough."
  • "My baby seemed hungry."
  • "I wanted to feed my baby something in addition to breast milk or formula."
  • "My baby wanted the food I ate."
  • "It would help my baby sleep longer at night."
  • "A doctor or other health care professional said my baby should begin eating solid food."

The lack of clear guidance was the most disturbing finding for study author Kelley Scanlon, an epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

"Ninety per cent of mothers who introduce solids before four months reported that the infant was old enough for solids, so indicating a need for better communication of the recommendations on solid food."

The standard recommendation in Canada and the U.S. is that babies be exclusively breast fed for the first six months.

The study, Prevalence and Reasons for Introducing Infants Early to Solid Foods: Variations by Milk Feeding Type, looked at weekly feeding habits as reported by 1,334 U.S. mothers.

Mothers who had been feeding their child formula were twice as likely to begin solid foods too soon, compared with mothers who were giving breast milk only.

The study also noted that the mothers who introduced solid foods to their babies before it was recommended tended to be younger, unmarried, with a lower level of education, or were registered in a low-income nutrition support program.

With files from the CBC's Farrah Merali and Deborah Goble