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