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A study conducted by doctors at Children's Hospital in Boston finds that babies who are raised on formula and introduced to solid foods early are more likely to become obese by age three.

Starting Solid Foods Earlier Linked to Weight Problems in Children

Dr. Susannah Huh, lead author of the study, says that waiting until babies are four to, preferably, six months old can greatly reduce the risk of childhood obesity.

Dr. Huh and her colleagues followed the health of 847 babies in Project Viva from prenatal care through early childhood. For purposes of this analysis, they examined the records of babies who were breastfed at least through the age of four months compared the records of babies who were never breastfed or who were breastfed for less than four months.

The doctors found that:

  • Breastfed babies did not tend to gain excess weight by age three even if they were fed solid foods as early as age 1 month.
  • Formula-fed babies were three times more likely to gain excess weight by age three if they were fed solid foods at four to six months.

Breastfed babies had a one in fourteen chance of being obese at age three no matter when they were started on solid food. Formula-fed babies had a one in four chance of being obese at age three if they were started on solid food at four to six months.

The researchers also found that these results could not be explained by unusually fast growth. Food and formula predicted obesity in fast-growing and slow-growing children. But which solid foods cause the most problems?

Cereal a Potential Problem in Infant Diets

Dr. David McCormick, a pediatrician at The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, was quoted in Reuter's as saying that adding cereal to formula without considering the calories is a major contributor to childhood obesity.

An infant feeding at mother's breast stops when no longer hungry. An infant feeding on a bottle eats what mother, father, or caregiver decides. The habits learned during feeding with formula, eat whatever is in front of you, carry over to eating solid foods.
Breastfed babies, on the other hand, are not pressured to take more than they want. Just like adults, infants and toddlers can become overweight by taking just a little more than they need every day.

While experts universally recommend breastfeeding for infants, there is a way to prevent this additional risk of obesity if your baby is bottle-fed. Just don't introduce solid foods too early. Waiting until the age of six months to introduce solid foods, especially cereal, is the surest way of reducing risk of overweight by age three when the child is not breastfed.

  • Huh SY, Rifas-Shiman SL, Taveras EM, Oken E, Gillman MW. Timing of Solid Food Introduction and Risk of Obesity in Preschool-Aged Children. Pediatrics. 2011 Feb 7. [Epub ahead of print]