Infants May Sleep Better When They Start Solid Foods Early, Study Suggests

Conventional wisdom and current World Health Organization recommendations hold that parents should breastfeed infants for the first six months of their lives prior to starting solid foods. But a new study suggests introducing solid foods before the age of six months may result in small but significant improvements in infants’ sleep duration and quality.

While it’s too soon to know if earlier solid food introduction might result in other, unwanted complications, the study’s authors concluded these results may have far-reaching effects—at least as far as infant sleep is concerned. The researchers found that when infants’ sleep quality improves, parents are likely to experience improvements in their overall quality of life. Furthermore, better sleep quality in infancy may translate to greater health outcomes down the road.

[Editor’s Note: The content provided on this site is for general informational purposes only. Any information provided is not a substitute for professional medical advice. We encourage you to consult with the appropriate health expert if you have concerns.]

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Examining Correlations Between Infant Food Consumption And Sleep

The study, which was published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, involved a secondary analysis of an existing study, The Enquiring About Tolerance (EAT) study. The EAT study was a population-based, randomized clinical trial conducted from 2009 to 2012.

In an effort to better understand food allergies, the EAT study examined the introduction of common allergic foods into infants’ diets prior to the age of six months as compared to exclusively breastfeeding for the first six months and then introducing common allergic foods at parents’ discretion. The study tracked several markers—including infants’ sleep—15 times throughout the duration of the three-year study.

The latest study used the same data to examine the relationship between solid food introduction and infant sleep quality. The data included information about 1,303 infants. Of these, 94 percent of parents completed the final three-year questionnaire.

The analysis found that infants who began consuming solid foods prior to the age of six months slept longer and woke up less frequently relative to infants who didn’t start consuming solid foods until after the age of six months. Additionally, infants who started solid foods before the age of six months were less likely to exhibit serious sleep problems than infants who started solid foods at a later age.

The discrepancies between the two groups evolved over time:

  • At the age of six months, infants who had started consuming solid foods earlier slept for an average of 16.6 minutes longer per night than infants who had not yet started on solid foods. They also experienced a decrease in nighttime wake-ups, from 2.01 to 1.74 wakings per night. Meanwhile, families that introduced solid foods earlier reported half the rate of very serious sleep problems compared to infants who started solid foods later.
  • Across the duration of the three-year study, infants who consumed solid foods earlier in life slept a mean of 7.3 minutes more per night than their counterparts. This group also experienced a mean of 9.1 percent fewer wakeups during the night. Infants who started solid foods after the age of six months were more likely to experience serious sleep problems throughout the duration of the study.

Again, it’s important to note that this study looked exclusively at infant sleep quality and did not consider other potential ramifications of earlier solid food introduction.

RELATED: New Research Suggests Sleep Arousal And Body Temperature May Be Connected To SIDS

baby girl sleeping
javi_indy/Shutterstock

Better Sleep Correlated To Better Health Outcomes Overall

At first glance, an extra seven or 16 minutes of sleep each night may not seem very significant. However, the study’s authors concluded that even these small improvements in infant sleep duration and quality may have important implications.

For starters, an extra 16 minutes per night can translate to almost two extra hours of sleep per week, which is not insignificant. Additionally, fewer nighttime wakings leads to greater sleep quality. The study’s authors note that these improvements in sleep duration and quality are correlated to other health outcomes. For instance, studies have found correlations between sleep duration in childhood and risk factors for diabetes, obesity, and other health issues.

Improvements in infants’ sleep quality may also yield greater quality of life for parents. For example, the researchers found that serious sleep problems in infants were significantly associated with maternal quality of life. If an infant is less likely to experience such sleep problems, this may yield improvements in the mother’s quality of life.

RELATED: Effects Of Poor Sleep Quality On Postpartum Depression

Similarly, other signs of poor infant sleep (such as shorter sleep duration or more frequent wakings) were linked to diminished parental quality of life overall. In contrast, greater sleep duration and quality among infants may result in greater quality of life for parents and caregivers.

baby smiling at parent
Golubovy/Shutterstock

Too Soon To Jump To Conclusions

While these results may sound enticing to sleep-deprived parents, more research is needed to determine if earlier solid food introduction is universally positive.

Currently, the World Health Organization advocates for exclusively breastfeeding up until the age of six months. In a primer on infant nutrition, the organization states that “all infants should start receiving foods in addition to breast milk from 6 months onwards.”

Meanwhile, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has issued the following guidelines: “The [AAP] recommends the introduction of solid foods at 4 to 6 months of age [and] exclusive breastfeeding for the first 4 to 6 months of age.”

Bottom line? Researchers and medical professionals are still working to determine the optimal time to introduce solid foods. In the meantime, parents should work with their pediatrician to determine the best time to change up their infant’s diet.

[Editor’s Note: The content provided on this site is for general informational purposes only. Any information provided is not a substitute for professional medical advice. We encourage you to consult with the appropriate health expert if you have concerns.]

Featured image: Pikul Noorod/Shutterstock

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Laura Newcomer

Laura Newcomer is the Editorial Controller at Mattress Clarity, where she occasionally writes sleep news. She's worked as a professional writer and editor for over a decade and has been published in or on outlets such as TIME, Washington Post, Inc., Entrepreneur, Huffington Post, Women's Health, and many more. Her primary areas of interest include sleep, fitness, nutrition, eco-friendly living, education, and all things wellness.

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