About ScienceofMom

I am a new mama to a baby girl, a former research scientist, and now a writer. I have a PhD in Nutrition and years of experience at the lab bench, but these days I spend my time trying to keep up with my almost-toddler. When she naps - I write.

The Whole Truth About Infant Cereals: 7 Science-Based Tips

I recently received an email from a reader with a question about baby cereals:

“My wife and I are expecting a baby this October. We are planning to breastfeed but have lots of questions about introducing solid foods, particularly cereals. Do we have to feed the baby commercial baby cereals? I am concerned about all the extra crap that is put into commercial food, including unnecessary sugars and possible GMOs. Is there another product or whole food option that we could use to introduce grains to our baby instead of a commercial cereal product?”

~Brenda and Leah in San Diego, CA

Baby cereals have made a big swing in popularity over the last couple of generations. It wasn’t long ago that they were considered an essential first food, given to baby within the first months or even weeks of life. These days, in some circles, they’ve become a marker of lazy parenting, with conscientious parents choosing instead to prepare their own organic carrot purees or scrambling eggs with butter and breast milk. Cereals, meanwhile, get slammed in blog posts that call them over-processed, pointless, and even toxic. The movement towards more real foods for babies is definitely a good thing, but the scare-mongering about baby cereals is not. Brenda and Leah’s question is a great one, and it deserves an answer that is science-based, not sensationalized.

mother feeding her baby

1. You don’t have to feed a commercial baby cereal.

The reason infant cereals are typically recommended is that they are fortified with iron, and iron can become limiting during late infancy, particularly in breastfed babies. In early infancy, babies are mostly using stored iron that was transferred from mom during pregnancy, but by around 6 months, those stores run low, and they need to be getting some iron from solid foods. At this age, babies are growing and developing rapidly, and studies show that iron deficiency in infancy can cause developmental delays and lasting cognitive deficits.1–3 Breastfed babies are at greatest risk for iron deficiency,4,5 because breast milk is quite low in iron. (The iron in breast milk is efficiently absorbed, but there simply isn’t much of it.)

Commercial baby cereals are fortified with iron, effectively making it an easy way to deliver extra iron to lots of babies. In one study, among breastfed babies fed a fortified cereal daily, only 2.5% developed iron deficiency, compared with 14% of babies fed solids at their parents’ discretion.6 Infant formula is also fortified with iron, so babies that are formula-fed for at least half of their milk meals generally get enough iron that way.

However, there are other sources of iron that are actually better than fortified cereals. Meat, poultry, and fish all contain heme iron, which is more efficiently absorbed in the digestive tract than nonheme iron, the form found in plants like spinach and beans, as well as fortified cereals. Including a source of heme iron in a meal also increases the absorption of nonheme iron, so serving baby a little chicken with lentils actually increases the bioavailability of iron from the lentils. Baby cereals are often recommended as first foods, but this is based more on tradition and culture than on any scientific evidence. There is no reason why you can’t introduce those great heme sources of iron (meat, poultry, fish) as first foods, and in fact, this is now recommended by the AAP. If your baby is consuming 1-2 small servings of meat per day, plus other sources of non-heme iron, then there’s no reason that you have to supplement with an iron-fortified cereal. See more of my tips on ensuring that your baby gets enough iron in this post: 5 Practical Ways to Increase Iron in Your Baby’s Diet. Also, note that your pediatrician should test your baby for anemia around 12 months, so this will at least alert you if your baby is very deficient in iron.

Many babies and their parents also opt to skip spoon-feeding entirely, doing some version of Baby-Led Weaning. Cee simply wasn’t interested in being spoon-fed pureed foods, but she loved feeding herself soft finger foods. That meant that she ate very little infant cereal, except what I baked into muffins or pancakes (mostly to use up the box, but I figured she could also use the extra iron). This route can be fun and appropriate for babies that are ready to self-feed by around 6 months; others may need spoon-feeding and may love the interaction of feeding with a tuned-in caregiver.8 There are lots of options here, and the most important thing is to offer iron-rich foods (cereal or otherwise) and to follow your baby’s lead with texture and timing.

2. Commercial baby cereals may not be as bad as you think.

Here’s the Nutrition Facts label and ingredient list for Gerber’s oatmeal cereal (this one happens to be an organic product, but the conventional version is otherwise the same):

gerber oatmeal label

What’s in baby cereals? Take a look at the ingredient list. Continue reading

New Research on Gluten Introduction to Infants and Risk of Celiac Disease

If you’re worried about your child’s risk of celiac disease and wondering when to introduce gluten-containing foods, then you’ll want to know about two new studies published in the New England Journal of Medicine this week.

Gluten is delicious to most of us, but it can be devastating to those with celiac disease. Photo by Adrian van Leen

Gluten is delicious to most of us, but it can be devastating to those with celiac disease. Photo by Adrian van Leen

Celiac disease is an immune response to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. It causes inflammation and damage to the small intestine, and while it can be successfully managed with a gluten-free diet, it is a lifelong disease. (Celiac disease is distinct from non-celiac gluten sensitivity, which is a murky and controversial condition that may not be related to gluten at all.)

I reviewed the research on early infant feeding and risk of celiac disease on my blog about a year ago (Breastfeeding, Gluten Introduction, and Risk of Celiac Disease). I have since received lots of comments and messages from parents concerned about this, so I wanted to be sure to write about these important new studies.

These latest studies dramatically advance our understanding of this topic because they are randomized controlled trials. Both started with a group of babies already identified as being high-risk for celiac disease, randomly assigned them to different time of introduction of gluten, and then tracked their development of the disease. Previous studies were all observational, thus only able to identify associations between variables, and were limited by confounding factors and other sources of bias.

The first study was led by researchers in the Netherlands but included children born in 7 European countries and in Israel. 944 babies were identified as being high-risk for celiac based on a genetic predisposition (HLA genotype) and having a first-degree relative (parent or sibling) with celiac. The babies were randomized to two groups, and one group was given a small amount (100 mg) of gluten starting at 4 months of age, while the control group was given a placebo and instructed not to introduce gluten until 6 months, at which point parents in both groups were advised to gradually introduce gluten-containing foods. The incidence of celiac disease was tracked through 3 years of age, with all suspected cases confirmed with an intestinal biopsy. Overall, about 5% of the study participants developed celiac disease by age 3, and it made no difference whether gluten was introduced at 4 or 6 months. It also made no difference whether the babies were breastfed (exclusively or not) or currently breastfed at the time of gluten introduction.

The second study was conducted in Italy and had a similar design but instead compared gluten introduction at 6 vs. 12 months. Continue reading

Bed-sharing with Young Infants: Is It Safe After All?

Does bed-sharing with infants increase their risk of SIDS, even without known risk factors such as alcohol use, smoking, and co-sleeping on a couch or chair? A recent study makes what is probably the best attempt to date to answer this question. The study, led by U.K. researcher Peter Blair, was published last week in the journal PLOS ONE and is freely available to the public (yay!).1

mother and baby

How you bed share can make a big difference to safety. Co-sleeping on couches, alcohol use, and smoking are all very risky. The mom in the photo could keep her baby safer by removing the swaddle and ensuring that her baby sleeps on his back.

Many studies have found that co-sleeping is associated with an increased risk of SIDS, but most of this risk doesn’t come from co-sleeping per se, but rather doing so in particularly hazardous conditions, such as on a couch or with a parent who has been drinking. However, there’s an important, albeit controversial, caveat to this conclusion. Several studies have looked specifically at infants younger than 3 months and still found a significant risk of bed-sharing even in the absence of these other risk factors.2–6 The current study comes to conclusions much more reassuring to bed-sharing parents. In this study, bed-sharing without alcohol, smoking, or couch/chair co-sleeping was not associated with a significant SIDS risk in infants younger than 3 months and even seemed to be protective in older babies. Both of these findings run counter to previous studies and to the sleep recommendations of the AAP, so they deserve a close look.

How was the study conducted? Continue reading

Zero to Five: A Book Review and Giveaway

I received a review copy of a really cool book over the summer: Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science (and What I’ve Learned So Far) by Tracy Cutchlow. I loved the book and wanted to review it on my blog, and the publisher offered to give away 5 copies to Science of Mom readers! (If you’re curious about my policy on reviews and giveaways, check my About Me page.)

Author Tracy Cuthlow with her daughter, Geneva.

Author Tracy Cuthlow with her daughter, Geneva.

Zero to Five is a book of parenting advice starting with pregnancy and going up through age 5. Author Tracy Cutchlow is a former journalist at the Seattle Times and edited John Medina’s books Brain Rules and Brain Rules for Baby. Then she had a daughter, now 2, and was inspired to create a book that would bring together relevant, evidence-based parenting advice into an enjoyable and accessible format. I’d say she succeeded.

Each of the 70 parenting tips are explained in 2-4 page spreads summarizing the research in the area and accompanied by gorgeous candid photographs of children and parents. The tips are practical, and they’re explained simply, but they’re rooted in science.

ZTF-guard-babys-sleep

The book is divided into 9 topics headings, listed below with examples of some of my favorite tips in parentheses:

  • Prepare (Bolster your friendships; Expect conflict as a couple)
  • Love (Create a feeling of safety; Comfort newborn with the familiar)
  • Talk (Talk to your baby a ton; Read together; Teach sign language)
  • Sleep, eat, and potty (Guard your sleep; Guard baby’s sleep, too; Let baby decide how much to eat)
  • Play (Let baby touch that; Save the box; Make music with baby)
  • Connect (Choose empathy first; Allow mistakes, discomfort, boredom)
  • Discipline (Be firm but warm; Label intense emotions; Teach instead of punish)
  • Move (Rock, jiggle, and swing; Keep moving)
  • Slow down (Be still; Don’t bother to compare)

Some of these tips are obvious, like talking to your baby. But they’re also really important, and that’s one of the things I love about this book. Continue reading

What’s so important – and stressful – about family dinner?

A recent study about the stress of getting family meals on the table has been getting lots of attention from both the media and moms. A Slate piece, “Let’s Stop Idealizing the Home-Cooked Family Dinner,” posted Wednesday, has already garnered 3.5K comments on the article itself and more than 26K Facebook shares. This has obviously struck a nerve. While feeding a family is a big and often stressful job, some perspective about why we do it and what matters most about family meals might be helpful to families feeling the mealtime crunch.

The study itself, titled “The Joy of Cooking?”, was published in Contexts, a publication of the American Sociological Association geared to be accessible to the general public. The paper itself is a really interesting read and freely available online.

Researchers in the sociology and anthropology departments at North Carolina State University conducted the study. This was a qualitative study, which means that the data came in the form of stories, generated from interviews with real people. From the paper:

“Over the past year and a half, our research team conducted in-depth interviews with 150 black, white, and Latina mothers from all walks of life. We also spent over 250 hours conducting ethnographic observations with 12 working-class and poor families. We observed them in their homes as they prepared and ate meals, and tagged along on trips to the grocery store and to their children’s check-ups. Sitting around the kitchen table and getting a feel for these women’s lives, we came to appreciate the complexities involved in feeding a family.”

These kinds of methods are common in sociology and anthropology research, and they allow researchers to understand the many complex variables that contribute to how people feel and why they feel that way. However, we have to be careful about interpreting these studies beyond the individual stories that they provide. For example, this study wasn’t a random sample of moms, and it can’t give us quantitative information like the percentage of moms who find cooking to be an unbearable chore versus rewarding or enjoyable. It doesn’t allow us to look at correlations between family income and nights of home-cooked meals per week, for example.

Here’s what it can tell us: Continue reading

Caffeine and Breastfeeding

If anyone needs a little caffeine, it’s a new mom. My labor with Cee took me through two mostly sleepless nights, and when she finally arrived, we took a little time to nurse and get to know one another, and then our whole little family took a long nap. When we woke up, the first thing I did was send my husband to get me a latte. The second thing I did was breastfeed my new baby again. That dose of caffeine felt like good therapy to me, but what about for Cee? Was it good for her?

caffeine structure

Source: Wikimedia Commons

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the safety of caffeine in pregnancy, and several readers wanted to know about the postnatal effects of caffeine – how mom’s caffeine intake might affect her breastfed baby. I promised to take a look at the literature and report back, and so here we are.

 

When you drink a cup of coffee, how much caffeine ends up in your breast milk?

Several studies have examined this question, and although they are small, they give us a general idea of the transfer of caffeine from mom’s blood to her milk. After a cup of coffee, caffeine is rapidly absorbed into mom’s blood and then passively diffuses across the epithelial layers of the mammary gland. Caffeine appears in milk within 15 minutes of consumption and peaks within an hour. The concentration of caffeine in breast milk ends up being about 80-90% of that in mom’s plasma. However, taking into account the amount of breast milk consumed and adjusting for body weight, studies have estimated that the infant receives no more than 10% of the maternal dose of caffeine, and likely much less (see here, here, and here).

Is this amount of caffeine safe for a baby?

Just because levels of caffeine in breast milk are low relative to what adults normally consume doesn’t mean that these amounts are necessarily safe to a baby. Another important factor is how efficiently a baby can metabolize caffeine, and it turns out that newborn caffeine metabolism is really slow. Whereas the half-life of caffeine in adults is around 2-6 hours, it is an average of 3-4 days in newborns and can be even slower in premature babies. In other words, a morning cup of coffee for mom will easily clear her blood by bedtime, but caffeine may linger in her breastfed newborn for much longer. Metabolism gradually ramps up as the baby matures and the necessary enzyme levels come on board, and most babies can metabolize caffeine at rates similar to adults by 5-6 months of age. Continue reading

Getting our 3-Year-Old Back to Good Sleep… In 9 (Not Easy) Steps

Yesterday, I wrote about how we found ourselves struggling with sleep with Cee. We knew it was time to make a change, and we knew this meant asking Cee to fall asleep on her own at night, without one of us sitting in her room with her. This was not exactly a new thing for her; until the last 6 months, she’d been falling asleep on her own since she was a baby. Still, given how things had gone lately, this was a big change for all of us.

I want to share how we approached this transition, but I don’t believe this is a magic formula by any means. I don’t think there are easy answers to parenting challenges like these, and what works well in one family might be a flop in another. I am proud of how we thought this through and put a plan into action, and it has seriously given our entire family (Cee included) more happiness around bedtime. Here’s what we did.

1. Husband and I did this together. All of this would have been much harder without his help. He is great at staying calm in stressful situations, which has a calming effect on Cee, and he is thoughtful and empathetic. We also recognize that our relationships with Cee are different. He’s the more fun parent; he’s more lenient with Cee in many ways but is also very good at setting rock solid boundaries when it is important. I’m still the parent that she turns to when she needs comfort. This often means a sweet hug or snuggle session, but it can also mean being on the receiving end of a bunch of messy emotions. Cee and I also tend to end up in power struggles more often, something I’m working on. Because of these differences, Husband was the parent who initially sat down to talk with Cee about bedtime changes. We also made sure he’d be around at bedtime for the first few days (he often works evenings and nights, so this isn’t always the case), so that we could take turns and he could take over if needed.

The importance of a strong parenting partnership has been shown in the research. A recent study from Doug Teti’s Penn State lab found that one of the greatest predictors of high maternal emotional availability at bedtime (discussed in my last post) was the quality of coparenting, even when dads weren’t directly involved with bedtime.

2. We told Cee about the change. We told Cee that it was time for her to start falling asleep on her own again and that we wouldn’t be sitting in her chair anymore. We didn’t dwell on trying to explain why, because we didn’t want her to feel like this change was a punishment for previous bedtime behavior. We didn’t emphasize that big girls go to sleep on their own, because that might have made her wonder if being a big girl was really such a great thing. We simply told her that she used to fall asleep on her own, and we were going to help her do that again.

3. We asked Cee to help us make a new plan for bedtime. “How do you think we can help you with bedtime now that we won’t be sitting in your chair?” Husband asked. Continue reading

How My 3-Year-Old’s Sleep Fell Apart

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that after I finished my book, I needed a sort of parenting reset with Cee. One of the big areas that we needed to work on was sleep. Bedtime had become a battle, and it was taking Cee a long time to fall asleep. This was leaving us all frustrated at the end of the day, and Cee was waking up grumpy in the mornings. I didn’t have the energy and attention to work on it while I was trying to finish my book, although in hindsight I’m not sure why we waited this long. Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve made some big changes to get us back to happy bedtimes.

Let me back up and tell you how we got into trouble with sleep in the first place. Last August, we moved to a new house. By this time, Cee had been in a toddler bed for almost a year, but she had no problem staying in it at bedtime or through the night. We had a sweet bedtime routine that ended with kisses goodnight, turning off the light, and then good sleep for Cee. After we moved, Cee started talking about being afraid of things like the deer and turkeys that wandered through the yard of our new house. We talked about these fears, got her a night light, and spent a little more time with her before saying goodnight, singing a couple of rounds of Twinkle, Twinkle and rubbing her back for a few minutes. All of that was fine.

Then Cee started getting out of her bed after we left her room for the night. She’d pad into the living room or my office to find me. I’d walk her back to bed and tuck her in again, but some nights this happened over and over. I would be shocked to see her in my office door at 9:00 or 9:30 PM, long after her 8:00 bedtime. She was also waking up during the night, coming into our room, and patting my shoulder until I woke up. I would walk her back to her room, often lying down next to her until she went back to sleep. Alternatively, I’d pull her into bed with me, but neither of us slept very well this way. All of this was adding up to fewer hours and less restful sleep for both of us.

When did the sweetness of a good nap become something to resist?

When did the sweetness of a good nap become something to resist?

Things seemed to get worse around the holidays. Cee was getting out of bed more and more after bedtime, and she was having a hard time separating when we tucked her back in. She started asking us to sit with her while she fell asleep, and this actually seemed like a reasonable solution. At least if we sat in her room we could make sure that she stayed in her bed, and maybe she would fall asleep easier and get more rest this way. I reminded myself that she was just 3, and if she was asking for more support in her transition to sleep, why shouldn’t we give that to her? (Never mind that she had been falling asleep on her own since she was a baby.)

There was something else going on at this time, too. I thought that maybe Cee’s struggles with sleep were because I wasn’t there enough for her in the day. I was going through a really tough period, approaching the 1-year anniversary of our first miscarriage and beginning some fertility testing. Continue reading

Caffeine Safety in Pregnancy

My first trimester of pregnancy coincided exactly with the last three months before my book deadline. I was lucky to have only mild nausea during this time, but I was really, really tired, especially in the afternoon. I tried hard to get enough sleep at night, but my body also seemed to want a 2-hour nap after lunch, when I just couldn’t stay awake, much less think and write. Pre-pregnancy, I responded to a post-lunch slump by pouring myself a cup of coffee or, even better, spending the afternoon at my favorite coffee shop, where a latte and the people around me helped keep me focused for a productive afternoon. A cup of herbal tea in the same atmosphere just made me want to curl up in one of the comfy chairs and take a nap, even as my caffeine-fueled coffee shop friends typed energetically around me.

But now I was pregnant, after 18 month of trying and several miscarriages, and I wanted to do all I could to minimize the risks of losing this pregnancy. In previous pregnancies I’d just given up most caffeine, and that wasn’t that hard to do. In this one, I was more afraid than ever of a miscarriage, but I also needed the caffeine boost more than ever to finish my book. I wanted to know what the research says about the safety of caffeine in pregnancy so that I could make an informed decision about whether to consume caffeine, and if so, how much.

Photo by Kevin Tuck

In her book, Expecting Better, Emily Oster includes an excellent discussion of caffeine in pregnancy. I consulted this for a quick answer to my question, and her analysis of the research on this topic helped me feel comfortable strategically drinking a little coffee in the afternoon. However, as much as I respect and highly recommend Oster’s book, I’ve also found that my approach to risk in pregnancy is a bit more conservative, and as soon as I had the chance, I wanted to look at the studies myself. Continue reading

Emerging: A Book, a Pregnancy, and Summertime

I’m back. In so many ways, I feel like I’m coming up for air after a long, long time.

I finished my book, or at least the first draft. I submitted it to the publisher a few weeks ago, and it’s now at the mercy of peer-reviewers. Like any big project, this is a huge weight off of my shoulders. It has commanded so much of my attention and energy over the last 18 months that I feel an almost unsettling freedom in each block of free time that comes my way. Where do I put my energy next? Between traveling, a much-reduced childcare schedule, and a sick Cee, I haven’t had much free time. However, since finishing my book, I’ve suddenly noticed cobwebs in the corners of our house, that our living room was still full of toddler toys that Cee never plays with, and that she had commandeered the lower shelf of the pantry for now-forgotten objects like band-aids, old catalogs, puzzle pieces, bottle caps, and pieces of gravel from the driveway. For a couple of days, all I wanted to do was clean and organize.

Another weight has lifted, too. I’m pregnant! Finally. It turned out that it took me longer to make a baby than to make a book. I’m now 15 weeks pregnant, and everything looks healthy so far. This experience – of trying to conceive, infertility, and pregnancy loss – has been more difficult than I imagined. When I tackled writing the book, I knew that the final product would be a result of how much time, effort, thought, and desire I put into it. Not so with getting and staying pregnant. This has been a lesson in relinquishing control and in patience. Having made it through the anxious first trimester, I’m now trying to adjust my attitude from one of bracing myself for something to go wrong to enjoying the pregnancy and letting myself think ahead to a new baby in December.

And now, it really feels like summer. I’m not teaching at all this summer, the first term I’ve had off in nearly two years. We’ve cut Cee’s childcare schedule way back to just a few mornings per week – just enough to give me a little time to write and edit the book as needed. We’re taking a few trips, catching up on appointments for our whole family, and sharing good meals made from our CSA produce. Best of all, we’re spending time together.

Cee and I especially need this. Over the last few months, my husband and I were doing a lot of baton parenting – both of us working long hours and then taking turns with Cee so that the three of us were rarely all together. I was starting to feel like my limited time with Cee was spent in too many battles and limit-setting and not enough connection and cooperation. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking about and putting into action a sort of parenting reset – trying to think clearly for the first time in a while at what is working and what isn’t and being intentional about how to change it. Happily, I already feel like we’re back in a better place, and I’m looking forward to lots of time with her this summer.

I’m also setting my intention to getting back to regular blogging this summer. I plan to post at least once per week, maybe a bit more. I’ll be blogging about pregnancy, miscarriage, infertility, babies (of course!), and some of my current parenting journey. I have a long list of topics accumulated over the last year or so, but I’m always open to new questions; if you have topic ideas, send them my way!

I’m really looking forward to blogging and engaging with you all again. Thanks for all of your kind notes over the last few months and for bearing with me. It’s good to be back!