The British study found that introducing solid food to babies younger than six months was associated with babies sleeping an average of about seven minutes more a night than their exclusively breastfed peers, peaking at nearly 17 minutes more a night at age 6 months.
Traditionally, new moms have been told to keep babies on breastmilk for the first six months of life, and gradually introduce solid foods after six months.
They performed a secondary analysis of the Enquiring About Tolerance (EAT) trial, which was originally created to examine the effects of early food introduction on the development of food allergies. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the Australian government, and others have changed their infant feeding guidelines to reflect the findings, which were published in 2016.
"Given that infant sleep directly affects parental quality of life, even a small improvement can have important benefits", says Dr. Michael Perkin, a co-author of the study from St George's, University of London. The early introduction group also experienced a mean of 9.1% fewer night feedings (95% CI 4%-14%) compared with the standard introduction group.
What they found was that babies introduced to solids earlier slept, on average, for two hours more per week from six months of age.
They also found these benefits were long lasting - with the babies who had started eating earlier still sleeping better at one year of age.
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Gideon Lack, who led the research, said: "Our study supports the widely held views by parents that it is more satiating for a baby to have solids".
And the better babies sleep, the better their parents' quality of life and mental health.
The children's health and behaviour was followed for three years, with their sleep and consumption of solid food tracked by families through questionnaires. "This is quite a well-designed study to actually answer that particular question", he said. Parents of exclusively breastfed babies were more likely to perceive their babies as having sleep problems, researchers found.
When an infant's frequent nighttime wakeups are causing concern and anxiety, parents can consult their paediatrician about whether starting solid food would be appropriate, Dr Kim said.
Despite the official piece of advice, about 75% of mothers gave solid food to their babies before five months - 26% of the babies were waking up at night frequently because of this reason.
"To our knowledge, we show for the first time in a randomized clinical trial setting that, consistent with the belief of many parents, the early introduction of solids does have a small but significant impact on sleep characteristics", the authors wrote.
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