When we talk about children being ‘ready’ to start solid foods, we aren’t just talking about a child’s personal preference, we are referring to their gut readiness.
The kidneys, liver, and immune defense also need to be sufficiently matured to handle solid foods, and there can be some consequences to transitioning babies to solid foods before these systems are ready.
Young babies are not able to break down proteins very well yet, their immune defense is still limited and their gut lining is ‘leaky’. Therefore, as their readiness for protein is not yet entirely developed, it can negatively impact the kidneys, put a strain on the digestive system, and potentially even trigger inflammation and irritation of the gut lining. Next can be the potential for heightened immune responses, possible allergies, autoimmunity, or increased incidence of ear nose or throat infections.
Exclusive breastfeeding for a time provides baby with adequate protection on a number of levels. It takes a while for stomach acid production in the baby to become optimum. Stomach acid assists in the clearance of pathogens as well as the breakdown of food, and evidence shows the pH of baby’s stomach is similar to that of an adult somewhere around 6 months of age, and improves even further through to 20 months. Lowered stomach acid in the early months is required to successfully colonise the gut with diverse strains of bacteria.
An issue that many infants face when starting solids is constipation. This is really common for young babies to become constipated around the time of transition to solid foods. The intestinal tract needs time to adapt to the digestion and processing of a more complex intake of food. Constipation during the transition of solids can indicate that baby was not quite yet ready to commence solids, or perhaps that there have been too many solids introduced. The gut perhaps wasn’t ready to break down the high intake of solid food and so and the digestive system can’t cope.
Another reason for constipation in young babies starting solids is the composition of the new foods. Perhaps there have not been enough stool softening foods. Baby then gets hardened stools and feels so uncomfortable that they can hold on and not pass a bowel movement, making the issue even worse.
Natural treatments for constipation
It’s always good to be mindful of offering a good mix of bowel moving foods with constipating foods. Some good bowel moving foods are fruits with edible seeds such as berries, dragonfruit, kiwi fruit, as well as plums, peaches, pears (or pear nectar), cherries, apricots, and especially prune and prune juice (only a very small amount, up to 2 tbsp).
Other bowel moving foods are chia seeds, flaxseeds, and beetroot. Try baking or stewing fruit and then blending with a small amount of ghee, butter, coconut oil, or flaxseed oil, which also assists in moving stool. Be careful not to introduce new foods to a child when they are already unwell from constipation. In this instance, stick to fruits that they are likely to have consumed previously such as pear or apples.
Once on solids, an infant can be given very small sips of purified water in order to relieve constipation. We don’t want to fill up on water as breastfeeding will be negatively affected.
Foods that are more constipating are cheese, meat, banana, rice, and cereals in general – particularly those that are refined. These foods are important, however we need to get the balance right as they will be slowing.
Healthy intestinal flora is necessary for efficient digestive function as well as strong immunity, and overall wellbeing. Increasing an infant’s beneficial bacteria helps to minimise incidence of constipation, as well as boost immune function and keep the gut healthy. The introduction of beneficial bacteria to the gut is going to be especially important for c-section babies, as well as those who have had antibiotic use or a breastfeeding mother has had antibiotic use.
So when is the right time?
It varies a lot based on the individual. Some babies are cautious with food, and perhaps their gut is more sensitive, and so they should have a greater proportion of breastmilk/formula allowing the maturation of the gut without introducing foreign proteins.
Some signs that indicate infants are ready for the transition to solids:
They have trunk and torso control in order to be able to protect their airway well, that means they can sit unaided without slumping over.
Loss of the tongue ejection reflex, so they don’t naturally just push food out of their mouth.
They are showing a really keen interest in food. You can tell the infant is not necessarily just exploring the food, but are keen to get something from it. This is often the first sign to come – they are watching and interested in food, but it is really important to have the first two signs above to be present before commencing solids.
Above all, use your instinct on the right time to start. Know that all children are different and seek the right time for your child without worrying what others are doing. If you are feeling uncomfortable with the transition to solids, seek advice and talk it through.
Encourage your child to learn, explore, and know that it will be messy!
Yvette is a qualified Melbourne-based Naturopath and Nutritionist, MINDD Practitioner, member of the Naturopaths and Herbalists Association of Australia, and Complementary Medicine Association. Yvette specialises in the treatment of conditions commonly affecting women and children, with a key interest in children’s digestive and neurological conditions, as well as women’s hormonal concerns, digestive issues, fatigue, anxiety, and skin concerns. Yvette consults in South Yarra, Melbourne, as well as Australia-wide via skype/zoom/phone.
The Naturopathic Co. Melbourne Naturopath 2020