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Keywords:

  • infant feeding;
  • weaning practices;
  • allergy prevention;
  • growth and development

Rising rates of food allergies in early childhood reflect increasing failure of early immune tolerance mechanisms. There is mounting concern that the current recommended practice of delaying complementary foods until 6 months of age may increase, rather than decrease, the risk of immune disorders. Tolerance to food allergens appears to be driven by regular, early exposure to these proteins during a ‘critical early window’ of development. Although the timing of this window is not clear in humans, current evidence suggests that this is most likely to be between 4 and 6 months of life and that delayed exposure beyond this period may increase the risk of food allergy, coeliac disease and islet cell autoimmunity. There is also evidence that other factors such as favourable colonization and continued breastfeeding promote tolerance and have protective effects during this period when complementary feeding is initiated. This discussion paper explores the basis for concern over the current recommendation to delay complementary foods as an approach to preventing allergic disease. It will also examine the growing case for introducing complementary foods from around 4 months of age and maintaining breastfeeding during this early feeding period, for at least 6 months if possible.