That karate chop I busted out on poor Uncle Charlie when he made an attempt to give my first baby a bite of dirt cake at 7 months old? May have been overkill, it turns out.
When that little-baby-who-is-now-an-alarmingly-old-kid was born over a decade ago, the recommendation from our pediatrician on introducing first foods included warnings to avoid the top common allergens until at least a year: strawberries, tomatoes, shellfish, nuts, cow’s milk (although we did yogurt and cheese, so ???), egg whites, and maybe wheat and soy and corn although – surprisingly – I don’t think so! Peanuts were not advised until two years.
The thought at the time, or at least how I understood it, was that, to reduce the risk of developing an allergy, the baby’s system shouldn’t be exposed to the potential allergen. The idea was that a body needed to experience a food in order to be allergic to it.
I followed those rules with extreme dedication.
I remember once reading the side of a Jiffy cornbread mix box, trying to figure out if it was safe to feed it to the baby, who was probably 10-11 months at the time. I didn’t see anything objectionable (you all see the irony here, right?) and we shared some with him. I freaked out later when I realized that – hello! – in the process of making the bread I added an egg.
A whole egg!
The world was about to come crashing down because I had poisoned our son!
In reality we just learned: Well, I guess he’s not allergic to whole eggs. That’s good.
But that’s really how I felt, that if baby got even a touch of a contraband food, that not only was I a bad mom but also that he would be injured irreparably for life.
Then I Knew Better
By the time baby number three came along six years later, I thought I had it all figured out. I really saw the error of my ways with 1 & 2, feeding them rice cereal at such an early age. I read about how the gut isn’t equipped to digest grains until 12-18 months and determined that this baby would not have grains until at least a year and no gluten for sure until 18 months. We didn’t want to risk allergies or leaky gut problems!!
I tsk-tsked in my head every time I saw an under-one-year-old noshing on crackers at church. It started feeling like grains were the enemy in a big way.
And we set off on the same path when number four was born in the fall of 2014, without doing any new research on how to feed babies. I mean, I knew what I was doing already!
But now everything is flipped on its head – newer research is constantly coming out, and the progression has been a complete one-eighty from ten years ago. As each subsequent Kimball kid was born, our ped told us that things were changing and that it wasn’t as important to hold off on potential allergens until a year if the family has no history of allergies. I still felt like grains and gluten were a no-no…but I was wrong.
To top it off, Gabe seems to be allergic to eggs, and when that reaction (severe vomiting) started happening with his very first solid food, egg yolk, I have to admit my reaction was to feed him practically nothing. We were so concerned about a potential reaction that we didn’t introduce much at ALL! Wrong again…
This post is sponsored by WellFuture – thanks for a great sponsor who is committed to educating all of us, especially little old me!
Why You Should Let Your Baby Lick Your Spoon
The newer research – dozens of studies converging – is showing that eating food is a lot like the germ theory.
The germ theory? In recent years we have realized that sterilizing our world with bleach and antibacterial everything wasn’t the best idea. As we discussed in January with Jena from Clean’s the New Black, our immune system needs to learn about germs by exposure to them in order to become strong and developed.
The gut is the same way. It needs to learn about foods by exposure, which is why Catherine jokes about starting a “Lick the Spoon” campaign to encourage parents to let their babies get a little taste of a lot of foods from their own plates.
But that’s not just a recommendation to “start solids” during that time. It’s a recommendation to expose your baby to as many different foods as possible during that window!!
Grains. Gluten. Eggs. Strawberries. Tomatoes. Chili powder. Avocado. Chicken. Oranges. Kale.
List all the foods you eat (except honey) and that’s the list your baby should taste once they’re old enough to have signs of readiness for eating (tongue thrust reflex, interest in food, etc.) but before they turn 7 months old.
I bet our Gabe only had about 5 foods introduced during that window!
(Did I mention how I hate being wrong? Ugh!)
First Foods Are Actually Like a Vaccine
What really blows me away, because it’s so different from anything I’ve done, is that it really only needs to be a taste.
We want the baby’s gut to have an exposure to food, not necessarily an inundation with the food.
The foundation is in the microbiome – and the latest research indicates that we need to be exposed to both germs and food from an early age to train the DNA of our gut bacteria, to teach them what to do with the food later. One study from Japan demonstrated that eating seaweed literally teaches their guts to be able to digest that seaweed. There is a marine bacteria on the seaweed that traded DNA with the gut flora, and without needing to wait generations for the humans to adapt, the microbiome evolved in a much shorter span of time (less than a human lifetime). This bacteria is not part of the microbiome in other, non-seaweed eating countries.
Like raw milk includes the enzyme lactase which helps both calves and humans digest the lactose in cow’s milk, it seems that other foods also come with their own “helper systems” for digestion that are particular to that food. (But this applies to both cooked and raw food, so it’s not all about the enzymes! In fact Dr. Catherine said that dead bacteria seem to be able to teach our bodies plenty about the world too, and she expects that we’ll be having a wave of “eat your dead bacteria” messages coming out over the next few decades. It has the potential to be the “next big thing” in health recommendations.)
For now, supplementing with probiotics at all ages, but especially WellBelly, formulated for tiny tummies, is another piece of the puzzle. Mainly because our world is so damaged by what we humans have done, we need this additional layer of protection and gut building power.
Just remember it’s not about how much you eat, but rather the variety and the window of the child’s age.
Dr. Catherine stressed over and over that breast milk is the best nourishment from birth through one year of age, and any food introduced before the child’s first birthday is really more of an exploration, not intended sustenance. In fact, breast milk is a key player in this entire equation – it’s thought that the enzymes in breast milk actually help teach the child’s gut how to react to all the various foods it is encountering in the early days.
I’d say it’s kind of like training wheels on a bike. You’ve got a safety net to catch you because your balance isn’t so great, but you can learn important bike-riding skills like pedaling, steering, getting on and off, etc. Mom’s milk does some of the work of digestion so baby’s system can watch and learn.
So we inoculate our babies with foods.
We give them a bite of this here, a bite of that there. A lick of our spoons as we eat curried meats and veggies in a coconut cream sauce or dip our carrots into homemade hummus.
It’s not about giving them a bowl of chili and letting them have at it, but rather giving their system a wide range of experience with food, while they’re still getting the help from breast milk, so that later, their guts can say to their native bacteria, “Ok guys, we’ve seen this one before, remember when Mom helped us take care of this one? It’s friend, not foe, and we know what to do.”
The way I was introducing food – hardly at all – is more like what people experience when they’re raised in a strict environment, lots of rules, perhaps a straight-laced Catholic school, and then they leave home at the tender age of 18 and go to a secular college. Their systems have had no experience with the world at large, so they can tend to react by overindulging, hanging out with the wrong people, partying all the time and flunking out of school after many a Saturday hangover.
That’s the food allergies. The body hasn’t been taught how to handle precarious situations, like eating, in a safe environment, so it goes nuts and reacts in the wrong way.
But Can Babies Digest Grains?
I feel like it’s been a pretty widely accepted mantra the past few years, that babies’ guts simply don’t have the necessary enzymes to digest grains until they are 12-24 months (depending on your source).
In adults, the enzyme amylase is the main player in grain digestion, and it’s produced by the pancreas. In babies, it is true that that particular organ isn’t functioning at full power yet and isn’t producing amylase in sufficient amounts to digest grains.
There are actually THREE other places that infants have amylase, plenty sufficient to digest grains:
- Mother’s breast milk is very high in it.
- Baby’s saliva produces a lot of amylase, reaching 2/3 the level of an adult’s by 3 months.
- The lining of the immature gut itself actually releases amylase as well, all in sufficient amounts to make grains not a problem for infants over 4 months. (In fact baby’s gut reaches an adult level of amylase by one month of age.)
If you want to learn more about this, Dr. Catherine wrote a post on the research behind babies digesting grains, and it’s a nice quick read.
The Research Says…
My interview with Dr. Catherine was nearly an hour, and we talked about a lot. She also sent over plenty of studies that you can read for yourself to really get to the bottom of the latest understanding of food introduction. (See end of post for references.)
I did my best to summarize the main points of our conversation, and this is what I came up with:
- Introducing food to a newborn before 3 months still isn’t a good thing for the gut development and potential allergies. So no rice cereal in the bottles to help a one-month-old sleep!
- The “sweet spot” for introducing foods as a sort of “inoculation” to teach the gut how to digest those foods seems to be 4-7 months, in association with breastfeeding. (Dr. Catherine leans toward 5 months to start, to give the baby’s gut more of a buffer from the “before 3 months” time during which food is still a negative.)
- Many foods should be introduced during that time – not massive servings or even as a regular part of the baby’s diet, but an initial oral introduction. Think of letting baby “lick the spoon.”
- Should parents make a checklist of things babies have been introduced to? Maybe. OR just roll with it and keep in your head. Be more chill!
- The old advice to wait 3 days between each new food is still important for families who already have a history of IgE food allergies (for example, did you read Mary’s story this week about her kids’ allergies? Chilling!) But for those with pretty clean allergy histories, it’s likely not necessary. Just let them nibble, within reason.
- Germs and dirt play a role in our gut microbiome and how we react to food too! Sanitizing the world has led to many gut problems – so avoiding bleach and antibacterial sprays is part of helping introduce baby to the world and build their healthy guts.
- About grains and digestive enzymes: the pancreatic enzyme amylase isn’t secreted in children until 18 months, but there are other places babies get that same enzyme to digest grains! So they are equipped to digest grains just fine.
- The adult microbiome actually seems to be set into place NOT during the birth process, not when food is introduced, but when the child is weaned from breast milk.
- Therefore the most important aspect seems to be introducing foods while mother’s breast milk is still present to help baby with the necessary enzymes and bacteria to do the job.
- And finally…stress, naturally, is horrid for gut flora. So try not to stress out about the whole eating thing!
During the “sweet spot” window of 5-7 months, baby still has the protection of breast milk but also the permeability of the gut lining that seems to provide the ability for inoculation, to create a tolerance to individual foods. This is all related to TH3 “tolerance” responses…which is a little above my head, but it basically says that the exact reason we didn’t want to introduce food – the leaky gut – is the reason why we need to introduce it all, but just a little bit. Like a vaccine.
What Can I do Moving Forward?
I felt a little sheepish and a lot like that day I fed my oldest the cornbread with egg when I realized I’ve already missed the boat on best practice here.
So now what?
Did I doom Gabe to more allergies?
I couldn’t think that way; I just had to do the best I could once outside the window of 5-7 months. The research is clear that introducing foods, particularly a few studies done on wheat, is best when the child is still breastfeeding. So before I’d planned, at about 17 months, we let him have a bite of homemade tortilla, and I made it a point to nurse him right after the meal.
At the very least consider his gut inoculated.
Thank goodness he wasn’t weaned yet back when I first did this interview, so I feel like even though I missed the true sweet spot, I was still within the malleable period of breastfeeding.
And perhaps there’s a silver lining here for all moms of crawling babies – you can stress out less about all the gigantic “crumbs” that fall to the floor during dinner, since it would actually be good if little ones got under there and inoculated themselves on some foods! Ha!
Attention, Skimmers! It’s Not About 3 Squares of Baby Cereal!!
I know we all read quickly these days, and I hate to make people think that they have the green light to feed their 5-month-olds rice cereal 3 times a day.
It’s NOT about nourishment. It’s literally about a TASTE.
You could make a checklist. But mamas have a LOT on their plates and a lot to juggle, and honestly? That just gets complicated. Or you could just let baby have a taste of everything you’re eating at the table after 5 months. Do the “lick the spoon” thing and think of it all as truly an introduction, not actual feeding.
It only takes one taste.
It’s not time to start baby on 3 meals a day of rice cereal and snacks of puffs.
If you don’t have a bunch of allergies to be afraid of, you can worry a lot less about the whole “introduce only one food at a time” thing.
Just chill out. Let baby participate in family life, including food.
Let them lick your spoon.
Here’s Dr. Catherine’s summary of the whole issue:
There seems to be a sweet spot to introduce foods in the 5-7 month window in babies. The studies clearly point to early introduction of food (before 4 months of age) with an increased risk of eczema, celiac disease, type 1 diabetes, childhood wheezing and increased body weight in childhood. But they also point to the delaying of food introductions beyond 6 months to an increase in celiac disease, wheat allergy, peanut allergy, egg allergy and type 1 diabetes. Babies have physical cues that tell us they are developmentally ready for solids but there is the maturation of the gut lining that must be in place to be ready for solids. Around 4-6 months the lining of the gut changes from the very permeable lining of a newborn to the more intact lining of an adult.
The research also points to the importance breast feeding plays in preventing allergies. Food introduction in tandem with breast feeding is clearly correlated with a decreased risk of celiac disease (one study showed a 52% decrease in celiac if wheat is introduced with breast milk) and allergic diseases. I think that waiting for the latter part of the range, around 5-7 months, is a great time to start introducing solids to baby. By introducing solids, I mean a true introduction, not using solids for nourishment. Nourishment at this age and until at least 12 months should come primarily from breast milk. So this food introduction would look like a taste of whatever the family is eating, rather than a serving of food.
- Interview with Dr. Catherine Cilnton on March 4, 2016.
- Fergusson, D. M., Horwood, L. J. & Shannon, F. T. Early Solid Feeding and Recurrent Childhood Eczema: A 10-Year Longitudinal Study. Pediatrics 86, 541–546 (1990).
- Norris, J. M. et al. Risk of celiac disease autoimmunity and timing of gluten introduction in the diet of infants at increased risk of disease. J. Am. Med. Assoc. 293, 2343–2351 (2005).
- Norris, J. M. et al. Timing of initial cereal exposure in infancy and risk of islet autoimmunity. J. Am. Med. Assoc. 290, 1713–1720 (2003).
- Wilson, A. C. et al. Relation of infant diet to childhood health: seven year follow up of cohort of children in Dundee infant feeding study. BMJ 316, 21–25 (1998).
- Cohen, R. J., Brown, K. H., Dewey, K. G., Canahuati, J. & Landa Rivera, L. Effects of age of introduction of complementary foods on infant breast milk intake, total energy intake, and growth: a randomised intervention study in Honduras. The Lancet 344, 288–293 (1994).
- Poole, J. A. et al. Timing of Initial Exposure to Cereal Grains and the Risk of Wheat Allergy. Pediatrics 117, 2175–2182 (2006).
- Wells, J. C. et al. Randomized controlled trial of 4 compared with 6 mo of exclusive breastfeeding in Iceland: differences in breast-milk intake by stable-isotope probe. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 96, 73–79 (2012).
- Akobeng AK, Ramanan AV, Buchan I, Heller RF. Effect of breast feeding on risk of coeliac disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. Arch Dis Child. 2006;91(1):39–43
Disclosure: This post was sponsored by WellFuture but all opinions are my own.