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

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

Amylase in Infancy: Can Babies Digest Starch?

Several readers have emailed me to ask about babies’ ability to digest starch. Here’s one:

“I have noticed you recommending cereals for babies several times.  I am sure that you are aware that many people look at feeding a baby grains before the age of one or even two as if you have offered your child strychnine. One of the reasons cited is that they supposedly do not have amylase to digest grains before that time. I have often wondered what exactly is happening to the cereal if it is not being digested, but the only statement I could find is something about it “rotting” in the gut.

I would love to get information from a scientific point of view on this topic.  Everything I have been able to find thus far has been very biased towards one point of view or another. Either “cereal is the perfect first food. Easy to digest and enriched with iron” from the infant cereal companies or “Cereal is junk.  No infant should ever eat grains. It is not natural or traditional and they can’t digest it” from online parenting sites.

I need a little clarity and common sense.”

~Hope

I love the skepticism in Hope’s email, and I can also empathize with her frustration about how difficult it is to find good information about a seemingly simple question: Can babies digest starch? If you search for the answer to this question online, you will run into dire warnings of the dangers of giving starch to babies. But these sites might set off your woo detector – as they should. So, after receiving multiple emails about this question as well as seeing it mentioned in discussions on the Science of Mom Facebook page, I figured it was time to put some evidence-based information about babies and starch digestion on the Internet.

Researching this question has given me an excuse to read some classic nutrition physiology papers harkening back to the 1960’s and 1970’s, and it’s brought back memories of years in the lab, exploring nutrient digestion and metabolism. And starch digestion in infancy, it turns out, is a really neat story.

Let’s start with some basics about carbohydrate digestion.

What is starch? How is it digested?

Starch is a type of complex carbohydrate. Made from lots of glucose molecules bonded together in long, branching chains, it is a plant’s way of storing glucose – product of photosynthesis and source of energy – in a stable form. We find starch in grains, root vegetables, winter squashes, beans, and some fruits, like bananas. Starch is an important storage depot for the plant, and it also makes for tasty staple foods for cultures around the world.

One little section of starch, containing 3 glucose molecules. Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

A chain of 3 glucose molecules, like a tiny section of starch.

Glucose is the major fuel for the cells of the body. When we eat starch, we have to break the bonds in those chains of glucose molecules, liberating them to be absorbed from the small intestine into our blood. Starch digestion begins in the mouth, where salivary amylase starts chopping up those large glucose chains. When this partially digested starch gets to the small intestine, amylase made and secreted by the pancreas jumps in to do more bond-breaking and is responsible for most of starch digestion in adults. A suite of enzymes produced by the cells lining the small intestine, including sucrase, isomaltase, maltase, and glucoamylase, work on the remaining short chains, finishing up the job and making glucose available for absorption.

Starch Digestion in Infants

Infants go through some incredible nutritional transitions in the first months of life. Prior to birth, their growth and development is fueled almost entirely by glucose from mom, absorbed across the placenta. After birth, they have to abruptly transition to an exclusive milk diet, which is high in fat and lactose, still a relatively simple sugar. As they start solid foods, babies have to adapt to a much more complex and varied diet. Around the world, starch is a major source of energy in the diets of children and adults alike. But when infants are first introduced to starchy foods – often in the form of cereals and porridges – starch is a novel nutrient to their digestive tract. They need to turn it into glucose, but are they equipped to do this? Continue reading

Breastfeeding, Gluten Introduction, and Risk of Celiac Disease

A study published yesterday in the journal Pediatrics suggests that later introduction of gluten and breastfeeding beyond 12 months both increase the risk of a child developing celiac disease. These new findings add to the already muddy waters of our current understanding of the role of infant feeding in celiac disease.

Photo by Shree Krishna Dhital, via Wikimedia Commons

Celiac disease is an immune response to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Celiac is characterized by inflammation and damage to the small intestine, leading to symptoms such as diarrhea and digestive pain. In the U.S., celiac disease is present in about 1 in 141 people, although many of these cases go undiagnosed. Infants that develop celiac disease often have poor growth or weight loss, because intestinal damage compromises nutrient absorption. They also may have chronic diarrhea and a swollen, painful belly.

Celiac can usually be treated with a gluten-free diet, but there isn’t a cure for the disease. Multiple genetic markers have been identified for celiac disease, but many genetically susceptible individuals tolerate gluten and never develop symptoms, leading to speculation about other risk factors, including early childhood nutrition.

This latest study was a large, prospective survey of infant feeding practices and development of celiac disease in Norwegian children. Parents were asked when they first introduced gluten and how long they breastfed their babies. Children that developed celiac disease were tracked through Norway’s national medical system. The study included 324 children with diagnosed celiac disease and 81,843 without celiac. The researchers then looked for patterns in the data that might help to explain why some children developed celiac disease and others did not.

There were two major findings to emerge from this study:

  1. Children that had not yet tried gluten by 6 months of age were more likely to develop celiac disease.
  2. Breastfeeding at the time of introduction to gluten did NOT appear to be protective. In fact, breastfeeding for longer than 12 months was associated with an increased risk, although it was borderline significant (P=0.046).

Both of these findings are contradictory to current infant feeding advice in the U.S. The AAP’s Section on Breastfeeding recommends exclusive breastfeeding for about 6 months before introducing solid foods, followed by “continuation of breastfeeding for 1 year or longer as mutually desired by mother and infant.” The same AAP policy goes on to say, “There is a reduction of 52% in the risk of developing celiac disease in infants who were breastfed at the time of gluten exposure.” But this Norwegian study effectively found that following the current advice of the AAP seems to increase a baby’s risk of celiac, not decrease it.

Obviously, we need more information here. And as usual, one study isn’t enough to give us the full picture of what we know and don’t know about this topic.

To understand the evolving hypotheses around celiac disease and infant feeding, we need to go back to Sweden in the mid-1980’s, when the rates of celiac disease in young kids suddenly quadrupled from an incidence of 1 in 1000 births to 4 in 1000 births over just a few years. It was an epidemic, and it appeared to be isolated to Sweden; neighboring countries weren’t affected. What’s more, celiac was showing up in really young kids. The median age of diagnosis during the epidemic was just about a year old. In 1995, celiac disease in Sweden plummeted back to pre-epidemic levels, and the median age of diagnosis increased to 4 years of age. Continue reading

What’s Your Feeding Style? (Fearless Feeding Review and Giveaway)

Do you have a feeding philosophy? What’s your feeding style?

These are not the most common topics in parenting discussions. We’re often too busy talking breast and bottle, baby led weaning or purees, organic or conventional, and how to get our kids to eat more vegetables. But the question of feeding style, I believe, matters more to children than any of these oft-discussed topics.

I am really pleased to have a new book on my shelf that covers the HOW and WHY of feeding children just as well as it covers WHAT to feed: Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School, by Jill Castle and Maryann Jacobsen. Both authors are registered dieticians, mothers, and bloggers. They take a long-term view on feeding – that we shouldn’t just be concerned with what our kids are eating today, but also about teaching kids to eat well for a lifetime.

9781118308592_Castle.inddFeeding style is one of the first topics in Fearless Feeding, so if you’re not sure how to describe your own feeding style, here’s your chance to give it some thought. Castle and Jacobsen discuss 4 feeding styles, analogous to parenting styles that may be familiar to you: Continue reading

Breastfeeding a Toddler? Should You Be Concerned About Iron Deficiency?

You may have heard about a study published in Pediatrics last week (Maguire et al. 2013) showing an association between iron deficiency and breastfeeding beyond a year. If you’re breastfeeding a toddler, or considering it, you might be wondering if you should be worried about iron deficiency. There is very little research on breastfeeding beyond a year in developed countries, so this study is worth a closer look. (If you’re interested, I’ve written before about some of that research, my own reasons for choosing to breastfeed beyond a year, and my experience of weaning my two-year-old.)

What This Study Shows

This was a cross-sectional study of children ages 1-6 in Toronto, Canada. Blood samples were taken from 1647 children, and their mothers were asked, “How long has your child been breastfed?” We always have to be cautious about studies based on parental recall. However, research shows that mothers actually answer this question with good accuracy (Li et al. 2005). Of the children in this study, 93% had been breastfed at all, and median breastfeeding duration was 10 months. Twenty-seven percent of children were breastfed for more than one year, and 4% breastfed for more than two years.

The children’s blood samples were analyzed for serum ferritin and hemoglobin. Serum ferritin reflects the amount of iron stores available for use by the body, so it can be used to assess iron deficiency. If an iron deficient child also had low hemoglobin, he was diagnosed as having iron deficiency anemia. In this study, the prevalence of iron deficiency was about 9%, and 1.5% had iron deficiency anemia, findings similar to other studies in developed countries (Baker et al. 2010, full text here).

This study showed that kids that were breastfed for longer were more likely to be iron-deficient. Each month of breastfeeding beyond baby’s first birthday increased the risk of iron deficiency by about 5%. Children who were breastfed for longer than a year were estimated to have 1.7 times the odds of being iron deficient than those breastfed for less than a year. Continue reading

Does My Child Drink Too Much Milk?

glass of milk copyA couple of nights ago, I had the pleasure of going out for drinks with a couple of other moms, sans kids. Predictably, we ended up talking about our kids, among other things. One of my friends mentioned that her 2-year-old daughter is a big fan of cow’s milk, drinking about 3 cups per day. This reminded me of a study I’d gotten wind of earlier in the week that recommended kids drink only 2 cups of milk per day. Should my friend cut back on her daughter’s beverage of choice? I needed to look at the study more closely.

The study in question (The Relationship Between Cow’s Milk and Stores of Vitamin D and Iron in Early Childhood (1) – paywall) was conducted by a Toronto research group led by Jonathon Maguire and published on Monday in the journal Pediatrics.

The headlines about this study have made it sound like we now have the final word on just the right amount of cow’s milk for kids. The Atlantic posted a story with the headline “Kids Should Drink Exactly Two Cups of Milk per Day,” and others published similar statements. I will argue that it’s just not this simple, and prescriptive nutrition messages like these just end up confusing parents.

What is neat about this study is that it looked at two important nutrients for young kids: vitamin D and iron. Deficiency of both of these nutrients is common and cause for concern. Continue reading

Toddler-Approved Veggies: Roasted Beet and Broccoli Slaw

We’ll complete BabyC’s series of veggie recipes (see kale and carrots for more) this week with my favorite – a roasted beet and broccoli slaw.

This recipe comes from Alton Brown’s I’m Just Here for the Food. Like the carrot salad, it features grated veggies, and this presentation seems to appeal to my toddler. We’ve been inundated with beets around here. This salad turned out to be my favorite beet recipe this season. It calls for broccoli stems, which is awesome since I occasionally throw away the stems in favor of the prettier florets. The truth is that the broccoli in this salad is totally overwhelmed by the beets in both color and taste. That’s not a bad thing if you’re feeding kids that are suspicious of green color and bitter taste. The broccoli does add a nice crunch, and of course, great nutritional value. Continue reading

Toddler-Approved Veggies: Grated Carrot Salad

As promised, I’m sharing a few of BabyC’s current favorite veggie recipes this week. We talked kale chips on Monday, and today we’re on to carrots.

Karen Le Billon, author of French Kids Eat Everything, posted a French version of this grated carrot salad recipe on her blog a couple of weeks ago. I still haven’t gotten around to reading more than the first chapter (which she’s giving away for free on her blog and which I thought was fabulous) of her book, but I follow her blog with interest. If there’s one area that French parents really are superior to American parents, it is in how they feed their kids.

Here’s the quick version of Karen’s carrot salad recipe, but check out her page for more details:

Ingredients:

  • 8 large carrots
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Juice of one orange
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • One small bunch flat leaf parsley
  • Optional: a dash of Dijon mustard
  • Pinch of salt

Instructions:

  1. Mix dressing by combining olive oil, juices, mustard, and salt.
  2. Grate carrots as finely as possible.
  3. Mince parsley.
  4. Mix carrots, dressing, and parsley. Serve slightly chilled or at room temperature.

I did not pay close enough attention to Karen’s directions when I made this, and I just used the regular large grate side of my box grater for the carrots. Karen says that the salad is best when the carrots are grated very finely, so I will try a smaller grate next time around. Regardless, BabyC loved this salad and ate it by the handful.

I have also had good luck with grated carrots mixed with raisins, sunflower seeds, and whatever prepared vinaigrette I have in the fridge.

While we’re talking French food, I have learned a few other good tips from Karen’s blog: Continue reading