What was your first food? Have you ever asked your parents? Depending on your age, it might have been banana, sweet potato, oatmeal, or Cheerios. Perhaps it was meat, first chewed in your mother’s mouth, and then placed into yours with her fingers. Or maybe it was something bought in the supermarket and spooned out of a jar. Regardless of what that first food was, chances are your parents chose the best option they could with the information they had at the time.
And now it’s your turn, and there’s so much information out there!
Parents often intuitively sense that refined, processed carbohydrates probably aren’t a great idea for their babies, but look around and figure, “Well, if the other parents are doing it, it’s probably for a good reason.”
That might be possible, but as a family physician thoroughly trained in nutrition, I have yet to find one of those “good reasons” particularly compelling.
Here are some of the reasons that I dissuade parents from feeding their babies wheat cereal, rice cereal, and other refined grains, especially as a first food:^
Refined Carbs Metabolize to Sugar
Fast-burning carbohydrates like bagels, breads, pastas, cereals, and white potatoes are all quickly metabolized to glucose, a form of sugar. When your child eats refined carbohydrates, she will get a blood sugar spike and subsequent crash much like that which comes with eating candy (since the food turns to sugar quickly after consumption). Quick-burning carbohydrates therefore leave babies cranky, fussy, and hungry shortly after consumption. They can further increase the likelihood of imbalances in the micro biome (the “good bugs”) in the gut.
Introducing babies to sweets and carbs, furthermore, can predispose the child to prefer sweet tasting foods and refuse vegetables, meat, and other nutritionally dense foods. For this reason, I usually encourage parents to introduce fruit after vegetables and meat, and to save whole grains for last. As for refined carbohydrates – don’t worry about introducing those: there is absolutely no need for most kids to be eating those. The foods you feed your baby now will influence his/her preferences later in life.
Refined + Processed = Nutritionally Void
The nutritional value of quick-burning starches and carbohydrates is little, if any. This is even more so when we consider that most cereals contain gluten, a known gut and nervous system irritant, and/or rice, which can be high in arsenic.
“But the cereal is fortified!” some parents point out.
Nutrition Shouldn’t Come From Fortified Foods
Some pediatricians recommend rice cereals because they’re fortified with iron and other vitamins necessary for a growing baby. But as we all know, the nutritive effect from natural foods is far more profound than from artificially fortified carbs. Calcium, zinc, vitamin E, folate, and iron are typically the nutrients synthetically added to processed grains. Why bother, when these nutrients are already abundant in fruits, vegetables, and meats? Furthermore, the vitamins found in natural foods are much more bioavailable (absorbable and usable by the body).
There Are Much Better Sources of Iron
Iron is naturally abundant in many foods that are not only healthy for your baby, but also deliver that iron in an easier-to-absorb format. Red meat, liver, and bone broth are all excellent sources of iron. Meat allergies are also very rare, making ethically sourced meat a great option for increasing iron levels.
For those raising vegetarian babies, adding ¼ tsp of black strap molasses to your child’s bottle or home-made formula can also be helpful. Yes, molasses is sugary, but when we consider that most baby formula has corn syrup solids in it, what would you rather give your child?
Also note that the form of iron found in fortified foods and supplements (non-heme iron) can cause constipation, making the argument for animal-based iron even more compelling.
Early introduction of any food is associated with an increased risk of ear infections.* This is worth noting in those cases where parents (or grandparents) add cereal to baby’s bottle.
Baby’s Gut isn’t Ready for Starches and Carbs
As a child grows and develops, the digestive system also matures. The various digestive organs mature at different speeds, meaning certain foods will be more or less digestible for a child depending on their age.
Milk: Babies are born with their intestines fired up to make lactase, the enzyme needed to digest mother’s milk.
Proteins and Fats: Around the time that food introduction typically happens, a baby’s stomach is producing hydrochloric acid and pepsin, substances used to digest proteins and fats. This makes pureed animal protein an excellent first food for babies.
Grains: Amylase is the enzyme needed to digest cereals, breads, and other grains. It can take up to 28 months (that’s over two years!) for a child’s body to produce adequate amylase, making grains harder to digest in the first two years of life.#
When in Doubt, Choose Real Food
There is so much conflicting information out there on feeding and raising children. If you’re confused, it seldom hurts to look to nature and start there. Watch your child’s reactions to the foods you introduce, prepare as much from scratch when you can, and when in doubt choose organic, real food in its least refined form.
^ By “cereal,” I am referring to dry cereal and/or cooked refined rice cereals or wheat cereals. Whole grains, like steel cut oats or rolled oats, are not lumped into this category for the purposes of this article.
* T. M. Ball and D. M. Bennett, “The Economic Impact of Breastfeeding,” Pediatr Clin North Am 48.1 (2001).
# Although the media ran with the story of Alicia Silverstone chewing food in her mouth before feeding it to her infant, this is the very same method that most parents around the world use to feed their babies. The mechanism in this practice is that the amylase in mom’s or dad’s saliva coats the food with digestive enzymes, making the food easier for baby’s developing gastrointestinal system to process. This is particularly of interest when we remember that babies don’t make amylase very well.
# Thanks to Jennifer Karon-Flores, ND for teaching me about digestive enzyme development in babies.