Scrambled eggs for baby?

“Start him earlier, and he’ll do better.” 

Many parents believe that the earlier a child starts doing something, the better that child is likely to be at it.  Children who start reading earlier are more likely to grow up to be better readers, right? 

Maybe not. 

Let me give you an example from another field where the facts are not in dispute:  infant nutrition.  I'm old enough to remember the era three decades ago when parents would compete by comparing what their babies were eating.  "My little Johnny was eating scrambled eggs when he was six months old," one proud mother might say.

"That's nothing.  My Emily was eating roast beef and mashed potatoes when she was just three months old.  Of course we had to purée it for her first."

"So?" the third mother says.  "My Edward was eating pâté de foie gras when he was just four weeks.  No purée required!"

In the 1980's, Dr. Frank Oski - then chairman of the department of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins Medical School - published a series of studies showing that babies who start eating solid food earlier do not do better, as a rule.  On the contrary, Dr. Oski's studies showed that babies who consumed cows' milk, scrambled eggs, cheese etc. prior to one year of age were substantially more likely to have problems such as gastrointestinal bleeding, milk allergy, etc.   Starting earlier doesn't help babies do it better; in fact starting earlier can harm babies.   Family physicians and pediatricians nowadays routinely counsel parents NOT to give cows' milk, cheese, eggs, and many other foods to babies until the child is at least one year of age.

The harm may not be apparent right away.  Some of the negative effects Dr. Oski documented don’t show up for years.  The baby who is given cow's milk to drink at two months of age may thrive on it - or seem to be thriving.  Years later, however, that baby is much more likely to develop chronic problems such as milk allergy.


What does a preschooler need?  What’s the best way to nurture the curiosity and imagination of a child at age 2, 3, or 4?  Too many parents regard the preschool years merely as preparation for school.  They drill their young children on the alphabet or on arithmetic.  They believe that if they start teaching those subjects to their child EARLIER, their child will do BETTER.

It’s “scrambled eggs for baby” all over again.

Starting academic tasks TOO EARLY is usually a bad choice for most children age 2, 3, and 4.  For most kids, it’s just not developmentally appropriate – and the end result, some years down the road, is likely to be a boy who is bored, a boy who is likely to be (mis)diagnosed as having ADHD.  He doesn’t have ADHD.  He’s just bored.  Rather than drilling your four-year-old on the alphabet, get him outdoors.  Allow him to engage the real world, the world of nature.  A boy who splashes in a pond chasing after a tadpole is much more likely to develop a real interest in tadpoles and frogs than is a boy who merely sees a photo of a tadpole in a book or online.  Richard Louv, in his book Last Child in the Woods, presents evidence that preschoolers today spend much less time outdoors compared with 20 or 30 years ago.  The result, according to Mr. Louv, is that when these kids start school, they are much less likely to CARE about tadpoles or frogs.  Seeing a photo of a tadpole won’t inspire a young boy the way chasing after a tadpole in a pond will.  And I think Mr. Louv makes a strong case.  First-hand experience of the natural world should be part of your preschooler’s experience.  Make sure it happens every single day if possible.

When you go to visit a preschool, trying to decide whether it’s right for your son, ask yourself some questions as you take a look around.  Questions such as:  Do the children have some unstructured time outdoors, every day?  Are the children expected to “sit still and be quiet” for story time?  Does the preschool offer something like “Noisy Time Story Time”?  Keep in mind that the best learning environment for your 3-year-old son may be utterly different from the best learning environment for YOU.  As an adult, you may learn best in a quiet room, free of distractions.  But many 3-year-old boys learn best in a noisy, buzzing, lively playroom. I first made this point in a scholarly paper I wrote in 2001 for the American Psychological Association (Adobe PDF required for this download).  I expanded on this idea, with more recent evidence, in my second book Boys Adrift.

Leonard Sax, MD, PhD Executive Director, NASSPE 19710 Fisher Avenue, Suite J Poolesville, MD  20837 Telephone: 301 461 5065