Starting a baby on solid food too early increases risk of diabetes

by Barbara Hewitt on December 4, 2013

Starting solid food before four months or after six months after birth is associated with increased risk of a child developing type 1 diabetes, meaning there is just a tiny window for mothers to introduce a new diet.

Researchers at the University of Colorado Denver studied over 1,800 babies that were genetically at higher risk of developing type 1 diabetes but they believe that their findings probably apply to all babies.


Studies have suggested that timing of the introduction of solid foods has implications for the development of diabetes

In the research, a higher risk of developing type 1 was determined as either having a close family member with type 1 diabetes or having presence of genetic markers, such as higher levels of specific antibodies.

The research team found that the risk of developing type 1 diabetes doubled if solid food was introduced before the age of four months and trebled if solid food was brought in after six months.

Furthermore, the study showed that when it came to gluten being introduced, maintaining breastfeeding during that time had a protective effect against the risk of type 1 diabetes.

Professor Jill Norris, chair of epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health, said the study suggests that the early introduction of foods a baby is as yet unaccustomed to into an immature gut could trigger an autoimmune response. The increased risk of late introduction of solid food could be caused if breastfeeding is stopped at the point of introduction of solid food but further research would be needed to clearly investigate the mechanisms involved.

Advice on when solid food should be introduced varies from country to country. For example, in the United States the recommendation is between four and six months and in the UK it is around six months.

Other studies have also suggested that the timing of the introduction of solid foods has implications for the development of diabetes but this is the first to look at type 1 diabetes in a prospective way where at risk children were followed from birth to the development of diabetes.

‘That’s what makes these results new and exciting, because we have a clinical outcome of diabetes and it’s relevant to the individuals who are worried about diabetes,’ explained Norris.

She also pointed out that one of the most intriguing things found in the study was that introducing gluten while a mother is still breast feeding this actually decreased the risk of type 1 diabetes. ‘So the longer you breast feed, and if you’re breast feeding while you’re introducing solid foods there’s a protective effect,’ said Norris.

‘The bottom line is not to introduce solid foods before the four month birthday and when the baby is ready, you should introduce solid foods preferably before the six month birthday and while you’re still breast feeding,’ she added.

Rice is typically recommended to be one of the first foods to introduce and the researchers found trends of increased diabetes risk for a number of different solid foods when introduced before the four month birthday. These included the early introduction of fruit and increased risks associated with introducing gluten early.

But Norris said mothers should not worry too much about what food to introduce as it is the timing of the solid food introduction which is the most important and breast feeding while you’re introducing specifically gluten containing foods such as wheat and barley.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the Community and should not be interpreted as medical advice. Please see your doctor before making any changes to your diabetes management plan.

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