Amid all the promotional campaigns urging women to breastfeed, one new study reminds mothers not to forget the importance of diversity in their babies’ diets. Of the heavily breastfed American babies in the study, about 75 percent were not getting enough of the four essential food groups. Researchers are hoping that their findings will help educate mothers about balanced diets in more developed countries. 

Researchers studied 365 breastfed infants in Cincinnati, Shanghai, and Mexico City. All babies were heavily breastfed past the age of 6 months. The researchers discovered that three out of four highly breastfed infants from Cincinnati did not have diets with enough diversity between the critical ages of 6 to 12 months — considerably more infants than in Shanghai and Mexico City. “Much of the previous work in the area of dietary diversity has focused on developing nations, where access to healthy and sufficient complementary foods may be limited,” Jessica G. Woo, lead author of the study, explained in the press release. The findings suggest that the opposite actually occurs and its infants from more developed nations such as the United States that are lacking in nutritional diversity.

It was previously believed that environments where food was scarce would lead to a lack of dietary diversity in infants. Researchers were surprised that more nutritional troubles actually occurred in more plentiful environments. “In Cincinnati, scarcity isn’t really the issue. I would have worries more about scarcity in Mexico City, where the study participants are lower income, but those children seem to be achieving a reasonably diverse diet even when breastfed heavily,” Woo concluded. This study also suggests that more developed countries need to better educate mothers on the importance of introducing new foods to their babies after they reach 6 months of age.

According to the World Health Organization, an infant’s need for energy and nutrients begins to exceed what is provided in breast milk around 6 months old. Complementary foods are necessary to help meet these needs. At 6 months of age, infants are developed enough to be capable of accepting other foods. When these foods are not properly introduced, the infants’ growth may be negatively affected. It is advised that parents begin with the introduction of smaller amounts of food and slowly increase the amount given as time goes on.

Early introduction to a well-rounded diet is not only needed for growth but also to instill lifelong healthy eating habits. The HabEat project was launched in January 2010 and aimed to determine the factors and critical period in food habit formation and breaking in early childhood. The study’s results showed that children must be taught to enjoy fruits and vegetables at the earliest possible age, before there is any evidence of a conscious choice, to best ensure that the children will continue these habits for the rest of their lives.

Source: Woo et al. At the Pediatric Academic Societies Annual Meeting. 2014