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Feeding a baby solid foods too early in life may increase his risk of becoming obese before reaching preschool, according to a new study in Pediatrics.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that new mothers breast-feed their babies for at least six months and introduce solid foods between 4 and 6 months. This new study finds that among formula-fed babies, those who were given solid foods before age 4 months had a higher risk of becoming obese.

The study compared obesity rates among 847 3-year-olds. Researchers found that among children who were breast-fed for at least four months, the timing of solid-food introduction did not affect their odds of becoming obese at age 3. But among babies who were formula fed or who stopped breast-feeding before the age of 4 months, introducing solid food before 4 months was linked to a sixfold increase in the odds of that child becoming obese by age 3.

“Our data support the existing American Academy of Pediatric Guidelines that suggest waiting until an infant is at least 4 months old before introducing solids. And what our study suggests is that increasing adherence to those guidelines across the U.S. population has the potential to reduce the risk of obesity in childhood,” says study author Dr. Susanna Huh with Children’s Hospital Boston.

The more moms work, the heavier kids get

Researchers aren’t exactly sure why introducing solids early may be linked to obesity. Their best guess is that formula-fed infants are consuming more milk than breast-fed children and therefore getting more calories.

But Dr. Frank Greer, former chairperson of the AAP Committee on Nutrition, is puzzled by the fact that the researchers didn’t find an increase in weight gain in the children who were introduced to solids early.

“They didn’t show that there was any increase in rate of growth in the formula-fed babies before that {age 3}. It makes me wonder if this is just a marker for people that introduced solid foods between 2 – 4 months, that their overall diet is poor in general,” suggests Greer.

Poor eating may have led to the weight gain by age 3, the doctor theorizes, not the timing of the introduction of solids into the diets of babies.

More research may offer clarification, but in the meantime, it’s important to remember to breast-feed your infant as long as possible and to introduce solids later rather than sooner.