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  • Denise Scott

Baby Cereals - How to Start and Which to Choose?

Now that your baby has achieved the half-year mark, it is time to introduce new foods. Traditionally, first foods have included baby cereal to introduce spoon-feeding. There are many choices! This article will give you some guidance.

Picture of infant sitting in high chair eating cereal.

Baby cereals come from grains that are ground to make a paste or puree when mixed with liquid. Breast milk or formula is ideal for mixing cereals since these are familiar tastes to your baby. Cereals provide a vital iron source for infants. Iron stores from birth become depleted by this age; the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that babies be given extra iron in their diet. This is accomplished with iron-fortified baby cereals and other solids. Cereals also provide carbohydrates for energy, vitamins, minerals, and fiber, which contribute to the development of their gut microbiome. They are considered low-allergy foods.

So, how do I start, and what do I choose?

It is best to start with a single grain, not mixtures. Look at labels to ensure there are no added sugars or salt. Choose a plain, single grain without fruit or flavorings that is iron-fortified. Breast milk or formula will provide the flavor.

Whole grain cereals are best since they contain all parts of the grain - bran, germ, and endosperm. Refined grains have the bran and germ stripped away, removing protein, fiber, vitamins, and healthy fats. Whole grains, with their fiber content, aid digestion, making pooping easier.

Bowls with a variety of grains such as oats, rice, quinoa, and maize that can be made into cereals.

Grain choices include oats, rice, barley, quinoa, maize, millet, farro, wheat, and teff. You will find baby cereals from oats, rice, barley, maize, farro, and quinoa. Oatmeal and rice are the most common first cereals. Another option is to cook a whole grain and puree it in a food processor or blend old-fashioned oatmeal in a blender or food processor until fine. These can then be mixed with breast milk or formula. Start with about a tablespoon of cereal mixed with 2-4 ounces of breast milk or formula (whichever your baby drinks). The mixture should be thin and liquid, thus easy for baby to swallow. They will increase their intake once they are used to this novel food item, so don't worry about the amount.

The AAP recommends waiting 3-5 days between introducing new food items. Once several individual grains have been introduced, multi-grain cereals can be offered. Continue to look for cereals without other additives. As more foods are introduced, you can add cereal to other baby foods such as fruit and vegetables, instead of giving cereal-only feedings.

Precautions Regarding Rice Cereal

Photo of rice and rice milk which contain higher levels of arsenic than other grains.

In 2021, the U.S. government reported high amounts of arsenic and other heavy metals in baby foods, especially those made with rice. According to the FDA, rice contains up to six times the amount of inorganic arsenic compared to other whole grains. Rice tends to soak up more arsenic than other crops. Long-term exposure to inorganic arsenic is toxic, so it is wise to limit this by giving a variety of grains and other foods. You don’t have to avoid rice entirely, but limit it to no more than once or twice weekly. Also, avoid using rice milk as a plant-based milk and avoid brown rice syrup, which is used as a sweetener in some processed foods and toddler snacks.

A Word of Warning

I recently became aware of a baby food line, Ready, Set, Food!, that combines baby cereals and other baby foods with the top allergens. They have an organic baby oatmeal cereal with 9 top allergens and promote using this as early as 4 months of age.

The words food allergy spelled on wooden tiles - beware of additives that could be allergy sources.

This is in opposition to the AAP which recommends waiting until 6 months to introduce solids, and to only introduce the common allergy foods - peanuts, tree nuts, soy, eggs, wheat, dairy, and fish - one at a time, in tiny amounts, and on separate weeks. Should an infant react to this combination, there is no way to know which allergen is the culprit. This is potentially dangerous. There is no basis for combining multiple allergens in a single food item, especially a food that should be a low-allergy food and at such an early age.

Final Note

The AAP does not recommend mixing cereal into your baby’s bottle as this can be a choking risk and cause them to consume too many calories too quickly. This is sometimes recommended for reflux, but first discuss with your baby's doctor.

Next week we will look beyond cereals.

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