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Mama's Little Baby Loves Pork & Beans

Coffee in the baby bottle and mashed-up fried chicken don't sound like very healthy fare for an infant. But according to a study conducted by Sharon Barton in UK's College of Nursing, many Kentucky mothers are feeding their babies such non-nutritious foods, including solids, much too early.

Photo illustration with teddy bear in high chair with soda and fried chicken on the tray"I studied rural mothers," Barton says. "But I don't know that mothers in Lexington or in Louisville or in New York City aren't doing exactly the same thing."

What Barton found was that even though they were advised against it, parents were feeding young babies solid foods low in nutrition. As a result, the infants were smaller than those babies whose parents had followed nutritional guidelines.

"How strong are your bones going to grow when they are fueled by Mountain Dew instead of formula or breast milk?" Barton says. "How about your teeth?"

Barton first became aware of this trend when she noticed that parents would make reference to feeding their very young babies solid foods, even though the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants not receive any solid food until they are four to six months old. Of the entire group that Barton studied, she found that virtually all infants were receiving solid foods before four months of age.

"Some of the solid foods were things you should feed your infant when he's old enough: baby cereal, strained fruits and vegetables, and formula," says Barton. "But the vast majority of the kids were getting things that weren't on the list."

What she found was that infants were getting all kinds of foods—green beans cooked with fats, mashed potatoes and gravy, desserts, and cereal in the baby bottle. Babies under six months old were drinking soda, Kool-Aid, and tea.

The babies' smaller size wasn't the only consequence of the poor nutrition.

"I think the foods that they're getting are setting them up for later obesity," Barton says. "If you develop a taste for fried chicken and Ale-8-One when you're little, when you grow up, it's unlikely that you're suddenly going to want a glass of water or a salad."

After analyzing the feeding data on the babies in her study, Barton says her findings confirm the American Academy of Pediatrics' conclusion that children under four to six months are not developmentally able to eat or digest solid foods because they lack the necessary enzymes and basic eating skills. The babies Barton studied may not have been able to digest the nutrients in the food and therefore their growth suffered.

It seems that even though all the parents Barton interviewed had access to good nutrition guides for their babies, parents turned to other sources for feeding advice—mainly their own mothers when the babies got a little older. Beliefs held by grandma, or even by the parents themselves also played a role—such as the myths that solid foods make a baby sleep through the night and that a fat baby is a healthy baby. Parents' desire that their baby be the most advanced also contributed, with a young baby already on solid foods becoming a source of pride.

In an upcoming study, Barton plans to examine the reasons why these feeding practices are occurring and to look at the family as a whole, rather than just focusing on the mother. She hopes that her research will help to update the information that health-care providers give parents about feeding their infants.

"I believe that all parents want their baby to be healthy, so what can we do to bridge the gap between what's written in those brochures, what parents believe, and what they want for their baby?" says Barton. "That's where I'm going next."

Jonathan Riggs