New research highlights link between mothers’ anxiety and weaning

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A new study led by Swansea University's Department of Public Health, Policy and Social Sciences aimed to examine why many babies were receiving solid foods early.

Baby feeding

The UK Department of Health recommends that babies are introduced to solid foods at six months old but many new parents decide to introduce solid foods before this time. This may increase risk of certain illnesses and obesity, particularly when solid foods are introduced very early at less than four months old.

Exploring the link between maternal personality, wellbeing and age of introduction to solid foods amongst 604 new mothers, the findings showed that babies in the sample were receiving solid foods as early as 6 weeks old with over two thirds introducing solid foods before the recommended age of six months. Mothers who scored more highly on the personality traits of anxiety and introversion or highly on current anxiety measures were more likely to give their babies solid food early.

Dr Amy Brown, programme director for the MSc Child Public Health who led the study said: ‘The findings indicate that anxiety in particular may lead to mothers deciding to introduce solid foods to their baby before the recommended age. Feeding babies is such an emotive topic and there can be a lot of pressure for new mothers to feel that they need to get it ‘right’. If a mother feels anxious there are lots of factors around feeding and growth in those first months where giving her baby solid foods can seem like the solution when it rarely is.'

For example, a common worry is that milk does not have enough energy or nutrients for a growing baby despite both breast and formula milk having far more energy and nutrients than most weaning foods. This worry is often linked to concerns amongst breastfeeding mothers that they cannot produce enough milk to feed a larger baby even though the vast majority of mothers will be able to produce enough milk if they feed their baby on demand. However, often a breastfed baby’s need to feed frequently is perceived as a lack of milk. Breastfed babies do feed very frequently as breast milk is very easily digested but this is normal and not a sign of hunger – as adults not many of us go four hours in between eating or drinking anything, babies need to feed too.

Another common anxiety is that a baby isn’t gaining weight quickly enough. A big baby who is gaining lots of weight is often seen as an achievement and encouraged by health professionals. However, although babies do gain weight quite quickly in the early weeks, weight gain naturally tends to slow down at around 3 – 4 months. This can be misinterpreted as a sign that a baby needs more than milk but again if you are worried about weight gain, milk usually has more energy than giving solid foods.

Finally, there is also a lot of cultural pressure on mothers to have a ‘good’ baby who is settled during the day and sleeps well at night despite it being perfectly normal for a baby to wake frequently during the night in the first year. There is a myth that giving a baby solid food will help them to sleep at night but this isn’t the case. For a mother who is very anxious about her baby’s perceived lack of sleep, giving solid foods may appear an easy solution. However it usually has very little impact upon improving sleep and can actually increase the risk of unsettled sleep as the baby struggles to digest it.

Overall we know that ideally we want more babies to be breastfed and for longer and for solid foods to be introduced closer to six months. However we also know that this can be a challenge for a lot of new mothers and that many factors affect their decision on how to feed their baby. Understanding that anxiety might lead some new mums to introduce solids too early helps those who work with new mothers at this time to give reassurance and guidance about other ways that they can support their baby’s development other than giving solid foods.

The research is now published in Maternal and Child Nutrition