Baby cereal is recommended by pediatricians, but is it healthy? Learn the truth about infant baby cereal, plus find out what first foods are better alternatives.
Somewhere around 6 months, your baby may be showing signs of readiness for solids. But, is the pediatrician recommendation of baby cereal as first food really the best idea?
Let’s delve into the science behind baby’s digestion, when to introduce solids, and the best first foods for baby. You’ll see that rice baby cereal is not the best choice for baby!
What’s Really in Baby Cereal?
Let’s first take a look at what baby cereal really is… because it’s not just plain rice. Since it’s usually made from white rice, there really isn’t any nutrition in it. As a result, it’s fortified with synthetically produced vitamins, like ferrous sulfate (iron), folic acid (vitamin B9) and ascorbic acid (vitamin C). Some manufacturers are offering organic rice baby cereal, but it’s not much better. The baby cereal may be from brown rice but it’s processed into a flake so that it’s quick to prepare (which spikes blood sugar levels) and smooth for baby’s palate.
When Is Rice Cereal Recommended?
Most pediatricians recommend starting rice baby cereal at about 4-6 months old for baby’s first food. Some doctors will recommend it even earlier as a way to help newborns sleep. Mom’s are urged to add a little rice baby-cereal and formula to baby’s bottle as a way to keep him full and sleep through the night. There are a few problems with this recommendation though. Even Gerber, the popular baby food manufacturer recommends against putting rice cereal in your baby’s bottle!
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Supplementing With Baby Bottles
If your baby is colicky and fussy at night, this could be related to digestion or latent food allergies (source). Lulling them to sleep with rice baby cereal is only putting a band aid on the issue. And if you’re breastfeeding and safely co-sleeping with your baby, nighttime feedings don’t require you to get up and lose a lot of sleep soothing a soothe a crying baby. I remember our nighttime feedings while co-sleeping were restful, peaceful, and no harder than nuzzling my baby a little closer.
Newborns stomachs are only the size of a hazelnut at first, and don’t hold much milk at one time. Their bodies aren’t designed to stay full for 8 hours at night (Source). In fact, in this study babies who were fed rice baby cereal before 4 months slept less than the babies who weren’t fed solids! Food is supposed to energize us. When your baby is excessively sleepy after eating solids, it may mean that his body is diverting energy resources to digestion because he is overfed. (Kinda how you feel after overindulging at Thanksgiving dinner!) (Source).
Why Rice Baby Cereal Is Not Good
High in the toxin arsenic
Arsenic is naturally found in soil and water, however it can become concentrated due to conventional farming practices. When pesticides and herbicides are used on fields, the runoff contaminates the soil and local water with arsenic. This irrigation water is then flooded over the rice fields for long periods of time.
Arsenic accumulates in the soil and water, and rice absorbs more arsenic compared to other crops. Even organically grown rice is susceptible to high levels of arsenic contamination because of the necessary growing environment, and the high levels of pesticide runoff in our modern environment. Both white and brown rice were found to contain arsenic…
Concentrations of arsenic were twice as high in the urine of infants who ate white or brown rice than those who ate no rice, according to research published in JAMA Pediatrics. Arsenic levels were highest in babies who ate rice cereal, often given several times a day to introduce babies to solids.
High levels of arsenic damages the nervous system. It can cause poor concentration and memory, and reduced intelligence. Furthermore, moms who eat a high arsenic diet while pregnant have babies with much higher rates of respiratory complications.
Your Baby’s Digestive System May Not Be Ready for Grains Yet
Amylase is the enzyme that’s necessary to digest starches and grains, like rice baby cereal. Babies are born producing small amounts of salivary amylase and as they age continue to produce more and more. By around three months old, their salivary amylase levels are at 2/3 the amount normally found in adult saliva. However, their pancreatic amylase, the powerhouse of starch digestion, does not reach adult levels until 8 months of age. (Source, Source, Source).
Rice Cereal Is…
1. Highly Refined
Baby rice cereal isn’t whole rice for obvious reasons, but it’s not even just ground. Rice cereal is usually highly processed until it’s converted into light flakes, which are “instantly” ready for consumption. This is done to make a true convenience food that’s easy to just stir into milk or formula, but it also strips the rice of the little nutrition it does have.
2. Low in Nutrition
Rice baby cereal is naturally devoid of nutrition, so manufacturers add synthetic vitamins back in to fortify it. It’s high in inflammatory and disease causing Omega-6s (source), and even the organic rice cereal can contain soy lecithin. Soy lecithin isn’t as scary as it sounds, however introducing soy to an infant can cause allergies and gut damage later in life (source).
3. Full of Folic Acid
I’ve mentioned that rice baby cereal is high in synthetic vitamins that are hard to digest and not bioavailable, but folic acid can be even more damaging. Folate is a necessary nutrient, while folic acid is it’s synthetic, manufactured replacement. It can cause thyroid damage and health issues for the estimated 50% of the population with MTHFR mutations (Source, Source).
4. Fortified With Iron
Rice cereal is fortified with iron, and pediatricians and dietitians argue that a baby’s diet is too low in iron. It’s true that breastmilk is low in iron, but some believe that it’s for a reason. If all babies had delayed cord clamping at birth, they would get an awesome iron stores until they were ready to eat pureed red meats, an excellent source of iron.
In Europe, formula contains half the amount of iron found in US formula (Source). If you indulge in high iron foods, like pastured beef and liver, then this nutrition is then passed through the breastmilk to baby in the right amount. (Source). Iron is a necessary nutrient, high levels of synthetic ferrous sulfate, which is hard to digest, is not. In fact, in one study, babies who were given high doses of iron fortification, the same amount found in US infant formula, scored significantly lower on IQ tests 10 years later.
Another reason why rice baby cereal is recommended, is because it’s a bland, tasteless food. However babies can taste different flavors in breast milk when you vary your diet, so they’re used to some flavor. It’s also helpful to introduce different flavors to your baby so they grow up liking all sorts of healthy foods, not just bland sweet carbs, which can lead to poor diet choices later in life. (Source).
Best First Foods for Baby
So now that we’ve covered why rice baby cereal isn’t the best first food for baby, what is? Nutrient dense foods– animal foods, in particular– are perfect for your little one. Grains and seeds shouldn’t be given until after age 1 (even better 2) and only if properly prepared. Here are some foods to start with that will nourish your baby’s brain and development. Be sure to opt for pastured and toxin-free animal products. (source)
The Surprising Best First Foods for Baby by Mama Natural
- Gently cooked egg yolk (can be a little runny), cooked in butter and served chopped or mixed with other food. Add a little unrefined sea salt for taste and minerals. Don’t do egg white until after 1 year.
- Organic beef liver grated or pureed
- Pureed pastured/organic meats
- Mashed ripe fruit like avocado and banana. Fruits high in pectin like apples, pears, peaches and plums should be cooked, cooled and then fed to baby.
Here’s more info on best choices for baby’s first foods.
Around 9 months, Include:
- Mashed veggies like carrots, peas, winter squash and green beans. Best served with a little organic butter, coconut oil or cream.
- Some organic whole yogurt can be introduced as well as foods like sweet potatoes served with coconut oil or butter.
How About You?
What foods did your baby first try, and did it include rice cereal? Let us know in the comments below!