Many parents, grandparents and baby food companies have locked on to the idea that babies should start with cereal. Paediatricians once pushed it hard, with some even encouraging it for two-day-old children. Today, many still recommend it but only as a handy source of iron. In truth, it's just one option among many. Illustration by Sam Woolley.
So long as babies get their iron in food, formula or supplements, cereal isn't essential. "By tradition, single-grain cereals are usually introduced first," the American Academy of Pediatrics says on a page about beginning to feed babies. "However, there is no medical evidence that introducing solid foods in any particular order has an advantage for your baby."
Why We Feed Babies Cereal
The historical roots of baby cereal stretch back hundreds of years: babies in 1600s Europe, according to books of the time, would sometimes be given a thin porridge if their mother couldn't provide milk, or in some cases as an addition to breastfeeding. This soup of boiled bread or grains was the rough consistency of milk, and babies too young to chew food could drink it.
The twentieth-century branch of this trend started when formula feeding was seen as a scientific improvement on breastfeeding, but the formulas of the day didn't have all the nutrients babies needed. Iron, in particular, was lacking -- but iron-fortified cereal could provide it. Iron deficiency is still a concern today, because babies only have enough iron stored in their bodies to last them half a year or so. Here's one surprising thing that may be partially responsible for some iron deficiencies: how quickly the umbilical cord was clamped and cut after birth. If a baby's cord is clamped in the first minute, they miss out on some of the blood, and thus some of the iron that they would have received if they had stayed attached even a few minutes longer.
Formula is now iron-fortified, but breastmilk has only small amounts, so it's now breastfed babies that are at greater risk of iron-deficiency anaemia. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends iron supplements or iron-containing foods like cereal after four months, but their official guideline also includes a list of other iron-containing foods like meats, tofu and beans.
This paste-like foodstuff is best known in the form of rice cereal, sold by companies like Bellamy's Organic. Similar products are made from oats, wheat or other grains. (Since rice-based cereals may contain significant amounts of arsenic, it's good not to limit yourself to rice.) These cereals are all finely powdered -- think flour, not rice krispies. You mix them with water to make a soup or a mush.
Although baby cereal is a traditional first food, there has also been a backlash in recent years by people who claim, not unreasonably, that it's pure carbs and we can do better nutritionally. In fact, you can skip the cereal (I did) as long as you provide iron in supplements or by feeding other iron-rich foods.
Babies Can Actually Eat Lots of Things
If you don't start with cereal, then, what do you feed a baby first? Pretty much anything you want. I peppered my son's doctor with questions: when can he eat rice? Beans? Bread? She gave me a very short list of ground rules, echoed here by the AAP:
- No honey until the baby is a year old, due to a (very small) risk of botulism.
- Nothing that could be a choking hazard: grapes, hot dogs, hard chunks of fruits and vegetables, big globs of peanut butter.
That's it. Anything he could mash up with his gums and swallow was fair game. With the doc's blessing, my son ate rice and beans and crumbled hamburger while his peers were eating cereal and pureéd fruit.
A point sometimes listed in rice cereal's favour is that it's rare for children to be allergic to rice. If you suspect your child might have allergies (based on family history, for example), make sure to talk that out with your doctor. But as a general rule, you don't need to delay peanuts or wheat or any other common allergens. In fact, delaying them may actually increase the chance of a child developing an allergy. Waiting a few days between foods is a good rule of thumb if you want to be sure to catch any potential reactions.
The open-ended guidelines also mean you aren't limited in the way that baby food packaging would imply. For example, US baby food company Gerber's smallest packages contain single fruits and vegetables, and their website positions those as a prerequisite to the "2nd foods" and "3rd foods" that are still mostly fruit and vegetable mushes. Which is a shame, because this scheme misses some foods entirely. Meat makes only cameo appearances, like in a turkey vegetable dinner. But meat is a really good option as an early food: it has lots of iron, as we've seen, and also plenty of protein.
That's not the only food that is rare on the baby food shelves but makes an excellent option. Avocados, for example, aren't a typical option in the baby food aisle, but they're easy and nutritious: just mash a fresh one with a fork. (Confession: when my first kid was little, I would bring him with me to Chipotle and give him a dollop of guacamole and a spoon.)
In fact, whatever you eat -- as long as it's part of a nutritious diet and not pure junk food -- is a good starting point for feeding your little one. A hand-cranked food mill can help to turn part of your dinner into a spoonable baby food, or you can use an ordinary blender or food processor. Even without special preparation, a lot of foods are baby fare in disguise: think mashed potatoes, applesauce, soup and yoghurt.
Sharing table food with a baby is also a great way to introduce them to new flavours, a key part of learning how to eat. Food writer Bee Wilson notes that babies learn to love what they encounter during a "flavour window" of four to seven months old, which can steer them away from being super-picky eaters later. Shaping your child's future palate is, then, another benefit of looking beyond bland cereals now.