Gender stereotyping our babies? New study shows mothers give solid foods to babies based on gender

A new study by Swansea University academics has found that reasons for early weaning differ according to the baby’s gender and whether the baby was breast fed or not.

Baby feeding research

Dr Amy Brown and Hannah Rowan from the Department of Public Health, Policy and Social Sciences at Swansea University have conducted the new study published in Maternal and Child Nutrition exploring the reasons behind early introduction of solid foods.

Asking 756 mothers with a baby aged 6 – 12 months why they introduced solid foods, they found that a wide range of reasons were given but that these reasons were related to factors such as whether the baby was a boy or a girl or whether the baby was breastfed or not.

Many babies in the UK are given solid foods before the advised age of six months old. The reasons for this are often complex. Babies are given solid foods early because they are perceived to be hungry or that milk isn’t enough, alongside beliefs that it will help the infant be more settled or sleep through the night. However introducing solids for these reasons is not advised and a later introduction of solid foods is important for infant health.

 

 

The study found

  • ‌boys were more likely to be given food early as they were seen as hungry and needing something more than milk
  • girls were given solids to try and settle their behaviour or make them sleep longer
  • breastfed babies were more likely to be given solid foods early because they were thought to be hungry or that milk was not enough.

Dr Amy Brown, Programme Director for the MSc Child Public Health who led the study said: ‘This is concerning as firstly there is no reason why boys would need substantially more food than girls at this age and actually, most weaning foods contain less energy than milk does so giving more milk would be a better option. Likewise, for girls, there is no evidence that they are more unsettled than boys and importantly solid foods do not increase the amount of sleep a baby gets. It is normal for babies to wake up in the night and solids will not solve this.

‘Possibly, the common gender stereotypes we have for older children, that boys are big and strong and girls must be quiet and well behaved might be playing a role here and affecting whether babies are given solid foods too soon.’

Baby with bottle

Hannah Rowan, a PhD student in the Department of Public Health, Policy and Social Sciences continued: ‘We also found that breastfed babies were more likely to be given solid foods early because they were perceived to be hungry or that milk was not enough. Breast milk does contain enough energy for the first six months of life but often the normal patterns of feeding of a breastfed baby can get confused with the baby being hungry. It’s normal for breastfed babies to feed much more frequently than formula fed babies as breast milk is so easily digested and they should be given more milk rather than solids.’

Dr Brown added: ‘We know that introducing solid foods to babies can be complicated but myths about the effect solid food might have upon infant hunger or behaviour need to be challenged. Babies need solid foods when they are developmentally ready to do so at about six months and an early introduction can increase risk of illness and is unlikely to make the baby less hungry or sleep for longer. It is normal for babies to need frequent feeds and to wake in the night and giving solids early will not change this.’

Hannah Rowan said:  ‘Understanding the reasons why babies are given solid foods early helps those who work with new mothers at this time to give reassurance and guidance about other ways that they can support their baby’s development other than giving solid foods.’

Read the new research in Maternal and Child Nutrition