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When my first child started solids at 6-months-old, the pediatrician said we could start to feed her rice cereal mixed with some breast milk. At that time, the concern over arsenic in rice hadn’t yet surfaced and most moms I knew were feeding their kids rice cereal too.
As a new parent, I assumed it was a healthy choice and after initially mixing it with breast milk, I started to mix it in with homemade vegetable and fruit purees at every meal. Later on, I also introduced store-bought oatmeal and multigrain cereals but I also milled a few types of grains at home.
Infant cereals are so easy to bring along in your diaper bag whether you’re headed to grandma’s house or to a play date. They mix in with just about any type of baby food puree and they’re so cheap.
Pediatricians recommend rice cereal in particular because it’s well tolerated, easy to digest and unlikely to be a food babies will be allergic to. It’s also fortified with zinc and iron, which is important when a baby starts solids. Iron stores in breast milk start to decrease around 6-months-old yet all infants—whether they’re breastfed or not—need these nutrients to support their growth.
Although the norm has always been to start babies off with rice cereal, in recent years experts say it may not be the best idea—and it’s not only because of arsenic. Here’s why.
1. It’s not the healthiest option.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, rice cereal isn’t as nutritious as other types of baby food. They also say there’s no medical evidence that starting solids in a particular order has any advantage for babies.
2. Babies aren’t ready for it.
Another reason rice—and other types of infant cereal—might not be the best first food is because babies don’t have amylase, an enzyme, in their saliva which allows them to break down and digest grains, until their first molars appear—between 13 and 19 months. Babies who eat rice cereal too early may even have pain, constipation, or stool changes.
3. Babies may not need grains.
Although babies need complex carbohydrates from foods like squash, sweet potatoes, zucchini and pumpkin, they may not necessarily need grains.
To make sure your baby gets iron and zinc, egg yolks, chicken liver and beef are all good sources. In fact, according to a study published in February 2006 in the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology & Nutrition, exclusively breastfed babies who ate pureed beef had higher levels of iron and zinc than babies who were fed an iron- fortified cereal.
Should you feed your baby rice cereal and other types of grains?
As with anything when it comes to being a parent, it’s up to you. With this new way of thinking, however, it seems that it’s a good idea to wait until your baby is older than a year. And like everything else, moderation and variety are key to give your baby a variety of vitamins and minerals, tastes and textures.