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

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

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