The most common advice still says to start your baby on only infant rice cereal first thing. But is it true that babies should have rice cereal first? Can you skip the rice cereal altogether? Here's what you need to know when it comes to baby's first bites.
If you've got a 4- to 6-month old infant, it's likely that you're starting to think about starting solid foods. It's also likely that your pediatrician has already instructed you on how to start solids: First, introduce only infant rice cereal; then introduce one single-ingredient puree at a time, waiting 3-5 days before trying a new single-ingredient food.
But is that the best way? Do you have to feed your baby infant cereal at all? Read on to discover the truth!
Why Is Infant Cereal Recommended As a First Food?
For decades, infant rice cereal has been recommended as a first food for babies. There are a few main reasons for this. For one thing, rice cereal is easy on babies' digestive system and is a low allergenic food. Second, rice cereal is iron-fortified, and iron status starts to be of concern around 6 months of age when babies are starting solids. And then there is the old wives' tale of infant cereal in a bottle helping babies sleep through the night. Let's unpack each of those.
Rice Cereal and Infant Digestion
I won't get into the whole history of commercial baby food in this article, but prior to it's invention, babies started solid foods at 6 months or later. After commercially prepared infant food became popular, solids were given as early as 4-6 weeks due to the heavy lobbying by the baby food production companies (imagine that!). The problem is, baby's digestive systems aren't developmentally ready for anything other than breastmilk (or formula) until around 6 months, so solid foods can cause digestive problems and discomfort.
Rice cereal was traditionally offered as an easily digestible food for young infants. However, if you wait until babies are developmentally ready to start solids, which is around 6 months of age, you don't have to worry about choosing foods that are easy to digest. Baby will be more ready for a variety of foods! In fact, most organizations and health professionals now recommend exclusive breastfeeding or formula until 6 months.
Rice Cereal - Is It Necessary For Good Iron Status?
Iron is very important for babies. Breastfed infants' stores of iron start to deplete around 6 months of age, so it is important to include high-iron foods every day once baby starts solids. Because of this, iron-fortified infant cereal is often recommended to help increase babies' iron intake.
However, rice is not a natural source of iron. It is fortified with a synthetic form of iron that is less bioavailable than the iron naturally found in animal foods (called heme iron). Iron supplementation of this synthetic form of iron has been linked to intestinal inflammation, increased bad bacteria in the gut, and lower IQ. So it's probably better to give baby foods that are naturally high in heme iron. Iron needs of infants can be met through naturally iron-rich foods with just a little attention to what you're offering.
Read More: Iron Rich Foods For Baby Led Weaning
Does Infant Cereal Help Babies Sleep Through The Night?
Many parents have been told by well-meaning grandmothers, mothers-in-law, and even pediatricians, to add rice cereal to a baby's bottle to help baby sleep through the night. But studies show that giving rice cereal before bed doesn't make a difference in how long baby sleeps. Also, this practice could override baby's innate hunger and fullness cues, so it's probably not the best idea.
Is Infant Rice Cereal Healthy?
In all honesty, rice cereal is not very nutritious. Sure, many of them are fortified, meaning synthetic forms of nutrients have been added to the cereal, because there just isn't a whole lot going on in terms of vitamins and minerals to begin with. Many foods are much higher in nutrients, which is what we're really looking for - giving baby the most nutrient-dense "bang for the bite" since their tummies are so tiny.
There is also the concern of the arsenic content of rice cereal, which has been brought to attention in recent years. Arsenic has been linked to cancer and poor learning ability. Infant cereal is named and the number one source of arsenic in babies' diets. Even the CDC now recommends against giving rice cereal every day.
Bottom Line: There are much healthier, more nutrient-dense choices when it comes to baby's first foods.
Why I Recommend Skipping Infant Rice Cereal
Because infant rice cereal just isn't that nutritious, and could even potentially be a health risk due to arsenic content, I recommend skipping it. You can offer your baby a healthier diet full of the critical nutrients he needs by offering a variety of real, whole foods (not literally whole, but minimally processed!). Infant cereals, including rice cereal, are costly, inconvenient, and simply unnecessary. Plus, would you find rice cereal tasty?
What To Start With Instead
There is a better way to start solids! You absolutely do not have to follow the traditional method of one food at a time, waiting 3-5 days in between. You don't even have to start with purees! You can offer your baby the tasty, nutritious food that the family eats right from the beginning with Baby Led Weaning!
And if you decide to go the spoon feeding route, I recommend other cereals, such as baby oatmeal or multigrain cereal, and including a wide variety of foods, including animal foods for iron, from the very beginning.
New to baby led weaning? Start here --> What is Baby Led Weaning?