LONDON — If getting your infant to wake up less frequently overnight and log more hours of shuteye overall, then this research is for you. A new study finds that babies transitioned to solid food earlier sleep longer and woke less frequently overnight.
Researchers at King’s College London and St. George’s University of London say that the benefits also extend to the parents, particularly mothers. Maternal wellness was linked to infant sleep problems, which were seen more frequently among those who exclusively breastfed for the first six months of a child’s life.
Government guidance in the United Kingdom and recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics suggest mothers breastfeed exclusively until nearly six months of age. But in the UK, 75% of mothers introduce solids to their babies before the five-month mark. Researchers say that 26% of parents say their infant waking up in the night influenced their decision.
“It is a commonly-held belief among mothers that introducing solids early will help babies sleep better, and our study supports this. We found a small but significant increase in sleep duration and less frequent waking at night,” says co-lead author Dr. Michael Perkin in a university release. “Given that infant sleep directly affects parental quality of life, even a small improvement can have important benefits.”
The study was conducted at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London between January 2008 and August 2015. Researchers surveyed parents of 1,303 three-month-old infants who had been exclusively breastfed. These babies were divided into two groups. The first group followed the standard infant feeding recommendations and were breastfed for nearly six months in all. The other group was introduced to solid foods in addition to breastfeeding.
Parents completed online questionnaires each month until their infant was 12 months old. They then completed questionnaires every three months until their child was three years old. These questionnaires inquired about the frequency of food consumption and had questions about breastfeeding frequency and duration, along with sleep duration.
They found that the group of infants that was introduced to solid food earlier slept about 17 minutes longer per night on average, and woke less frequently — a decrease from slightly more than twice per night to 1.74 times — compared to infants breastfed for the full six months.
The authors hope their findings will lead health officials to reconsider their positions on when to transition to solids.
“While the official guidance is that starting solid foods won’t make babies more likely to sleep through the night, this study suggests that this advice needs to be re-examined in light of the evidence we have gathered,” says lead author Gideon Lack, a professor at King’s College London.
The study was published in JAMA Pediatrics.