The Virgin Gut: Should I Start Solids Early?
Today’s guest post is from Megan Garcia (megangarcia.com)!
Should I Start Solids Early?
When Bethany and I “met” over email and talked about a guest post, she said she wanted to hear more about the virgin gut. It’s something that she tells folks to research when they ask whether or not it’s okay to start solids early.
“Early,” according to the World Health Organization, can mean before 6 months of exclusive breastfeeding.
Breast Milk – And Only Breast Milk – Protects Early Gut Health
Honestly, I had never heard the term “virgin gut” so I looked it up: A virgin gut is one that has only been exposed to breast milk.
This is something that made sense to me. Just last year, researchers at the University of North Carolina [ link: http://college.unc.edu/2015/02/05/breastfeeding/ ] found that formula – even when given alongside breast milk – is enough to forever change your baby’s gut. And the microbes that live there. As it turns out, exclusive breastfeeding prepares your baby’s gut for the introduction of solids. And when you add formula to your baby’s diet? Well, there’s a greater chance of stomachaches and colic.
Like formula, offering your baby any kind of food will change your baby’s gut. Offer solids too early, and you run the risk of interfering with the development of you baby’s immune system.
The main reason is this: Your baby’s microbes “educate” the newborn immune system. And sort of like how you can’t learn to read without first learning your alphabet – the first education of your baby’s immune system relies on specific microbes to help seal the gut and create a strong gut barrier. And these specific microbes thrive on the sugars found in breast milk.
When microbes living in your baby’s gut fall out of balance, this is called dysbiosis. Early dysbiosis is linked to immune disorders later in life. Specifically:
Atopic dermatitis, or eczema
In reality, it’s not just formula or early solids that are linked to baby dysbiosis. Anything that disrupts the balance of microbes within the first few months can cause some trouble. According to Maria Dominguez-Bello at the New York University School of Medicine, this means:
Formula, or “artificial lactation”
The early introduction of solids
If You Follow Baby-Led Weaning, You Don’t Need To Worry
One question I get a lot is this: Do I need to start at exactly 6 months? You see, the World Health Organization recommends beginning solids after 6 months (or 180 days) of exclusive breastfeeding. But it wasn’t always this way. Before 2002, the recommended age was 4 months.
At 4 months, purees and baby cereals are age-appropriate if your baby cannot feed himself. But with the new recommendation, some researchers say that pureed food might be just as outdated as the recommendation to begin solids at 4 months. Yes, baby-led weaning is catching on with medical professionals too!
The bottom line is that the recommendation to wait until 6 months is a guideline. At around 6 months, your baby’s gut and immune system will be ready for solids. This happens along with other signs of readiness, which you can gauge by asking yourself:
Is my baby able to sit without help?
Is there an interest in food?
Can my baby grab with his finger and thumb, instead of his whole palm?
If you follow baby-led weaning – your baby will let you know when it’s time to begin solids. If he reaches for food at 5 ½ months, follow his cues and begin to introduce solids (I have an opinion on which solids matter most – namely, foods with iron). Most babies will reach for food between the ages of 4 – 7 months and will get used to feeding themselves at around 8 months. But every baby is different.
To wrap things up:
Anything besides breast milk will impact the microbes living in your baby’s gut + newborn immune system
Both formula and early introduction of solids can lead to baby dysbiosis
Lifelong immune disorders like food allergies and eczema are linked to baby dysbiosis
At around 6 months, your baby’s gut and immune system are ready for solids – this is only a guideline! Watch for the baby-led weaning signs of readiness.
If you can, use the principle of the virgin gut and allow your baby’s immune system to fully ripen before changing around the little tribes of microbes that live there. This one step will support your child’s health into adulthood.
To find out more about first foods, head on over to Megan Garcia’s website [ link: http://megangarcia.com/first-foods-and-beyond/ ] or stop by her Instagram feed [ link: https://www.instagram.com/megan___garcia/ ], where she shares tips on baby health + nutrition.
Azad, M. B., et al. “Infant gut microbiota and food sensitization: associations in the first year of life.” Clinical & Experimental Allergy 45.3 (2015): 632-643.
Daniels, Lisa, et al. “Baby-Led Introduction to SolidS (BLISS) study: a randomised controlled trial of a baby-led approach to complementary feeding.” BMC pediatrics 15.1 (2015): 179.
Dominguez-Bello, Maria, and Filipa Godoy-Vitorino. “Infant Microbiome.” Encyclopedia of Metagenomics: Environmental Metagenomics (2015): 280-285.
Wright, Charlotte M., et al. “Is baby‐led weaning feasible? When do babies first reach out for and eat finger foods?.” Maternal & child nutrition 7.1 (2011): 27-33.