Every sleep-deprived parent wonders this at some point in an effort to find the answer to more sleep.
You might have even heard other parents swear “as soon as we started solids she started sleeping 8 hours!” causing you to wonder if you should be feeding your baby real food too. What wouldn’t we do to gain a few more minutes of sleep at night?
Turns out, it’s not as simple as you’d think.
When Babies Start Solids
The American Academy of Pediatrics currently recommends starting solids at around 6 months. Speak with your pediatrician to see when your baby is ready to start. Here are some indicators that your baby might be ready.
- Interested in food- watches you eat or stares at food
- Seems hungry in between milk feedings
- Can sit upright in the highchair
- Can hold her head up steadily
- Baby’s tongue thrusts forward when food is in her mouth
Should You Offer Solids Before or After a Nap?
After! Eating solids is a learning process and you want to do this when your baby is well-rested. After your baby has had a good nap and has had a milk feeding (solids can be frustrating at first, so we don’t want to try that with a hungry baby either!) can be a good time.
It’s always smart to give your baby solids in the morning or early afternoon versus evening, so that in case your baby has a negative reaction it won’t disturb night sleep.
How Solids Impact Your Baby
Your baby’s digestive system is used to one thing up until this point: milk. Starting solids introduces a whole new set of tasks to her system and is a big change! This can cause disrupted sleep for a few days, stomach pain or general discomfort as your baby’s belly adjusts to the new normal. That’s why it’s recommended to start solids gradually, with one small meal a day for a few weeks before adding anything else or increasing quantities.
It’s also not a good idea to start solids right as you embark on sleep training – you want to have as many control factors in place so that you can rule out any discomfort or pain from the digestive adjustment your baby will experience.
Do Solids Help to Improve Sleep?
Here’s the thing: although it feels like it makes sense, the evidence we have about solids and sleep is that there’s a chance solids may improve sleep length in babies… by about 17 minutes. Not all that much, I know.
Now, for some babies, solids may help improve sleep. It’s not impossible. However, the evidence that we do have shows little benefit in the face of potential downsides, so it’s not something I recommend doing just for the sake of getting more sleep. If your baby is showing signs of readiness for food, and it happens to help her sleep better, that’s a bonus. But it’s not something to chase after in the hopes of getting more sleep at night.
Can Solids Hurt Sleep?
Starting solids too early can cause stomach issues and possibly decrease your milk supply, which is much more important for your baby.
It can be tempting to start solids earlier in an effort to get more sleep. It sounds like it makes sense: baby wakes up because she’s hungry. Stuff her with lots of food, and a bit more right before bed, and she won’t wake up till she’s hungry again- hopefully at 7am!
There are two problems with this line of thinking:
1. Babies often wake up for other reasons aside from hunger, so feeling full won’t solve those wakings.
2. Too much food can be taxing on your baby’s digestive system, causing stomach pain or constipation, which will keep her up even longer! If there’s anything sadder than a hungry baby, it’s a baby who’s in pain.
What About Rice Cereal in the Bottle?
This is an old-school “hack” that almost every new parent has been told at some point. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention both discourage this practice. Why?
1. First and foremost, it’s a choking hazard. Oral motor skills are often underdeveloped in young babies who may choke on thickened formula.
2. Exposing babies to solids too early (as is often the scenario with rice in the bottle) can raise the risk of food allergies.
3. There is no evidence it improves sleep.
But What About Your Friend’s Baby?
The day she started solids her baby started sleeping…
There are some babies who start sleeping through the night after they start solids. Something to keep in mind is that most babies begin eating solids at around 6 months, which is when a lot of babies begin to improve their sleep naturally on their own. So yes, he started to sleep longer at the same time when he started solids. Was is the solids? Or would it have happened on it’s own, regardless.
How Solids May Help Sleep
Science is constantly evolving, and nutrition has a strong link to sleep quality (eat a pint of ice cream right before bed and you’ll see what I mean). There is slowly emerging evidence that may demonstrate slight improvement in sleep duration once babies start solids.
But to me, this is a lot more compelling:
Feeding your baby solids (if it’s the right time for her to start) may have an indirect benefit to her sleep: you knowing that she’s eating solids makes you less nervous that she’s hungry at night. That’s just how we work as parents.
Keep in mind though, that for a baby without decent sleep skills, solids is unlikely to be the answer to sleeping through the night.
Solids are yummy, babies are delicious – and when the two meet, it’s like a slice of heaven. There is no greater joy than the look on your baby’s face when she savors that first bite of mashed banana.
However, the decision of when to start solids should not be made in connection with sleep. It likely won’t help in a significant way, and carries risks if done too early. There is very little evidence that suggests a positive correlation between solids and longer stretches of sleep, and there is some evidence that suggests starting solids too early can disrupt sleep (just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse!)
If you’re struggling with your baby’s sleep, there are answers for you other than solids! Be sure to check out my Baby Sleep Course to learn how to improve your baby’s sleep, no matter when your baby starts food.