When it’s time to start baby on solid foods, one of the first meals recommended by pediatricians is often infant cereal – rice or oatmeal cereal, to be exact. But which one is the better choice? And are there other options?
Infant cereals have typically been recommended as a first food by many pediatricians because commercial baby cereals are fortified with iron. Iron stores begin to deplete by the time babies are around six months of age. Low iron can cause developmental issues and cognitive deficits.
When my daughter was approaching six months old, her pediatrician gave us the go-ahead to start rice or oatmeal cereal. She suggested I start with oatmeal cereal since it was less constipating than rice cereal.
We started on a fantastic brand of baby oatmeal cereal and, at the same time, I also started doing some research on the different types of baby cereals and why they were even necessary.
I discovered some scary things – many websites talk about how rice cereal is bad for babies; other websites say that infant cereals are unnecessary and can be skipped altogether.
With so much conflicting and confusing information out there, what’s the truth?
Oats are whole-grain and rich in fiber. They may help prevent constipation, improve the immune system and soothe a baby’s digestive system. Just one-fourth of a cup of oats will provide almost 80 percent of the daily requirements for baby’s iron in addition to highly beneficial amounts of magnesium and zinc.
These are some of the main reasons why I decided to go with oatmeal cereal for my daughter.
Rice cereal also has some beneficial qualities – it is easy to digest, gluten-free and does not often cause allergic reactions or sensitivities. However, there has been a lot of controversy surrounding infant rice cereal.
A big problem with rice cereal is arsenic. Arsenic occurs naturally in soil, air and water. Because rice is grown in water, any arsenic in the water supply binds to the rice as it grows.
A recent Environmental Protection Agency estimate showed that chronic inorganic arsenic intake of more than 0.3 mcg/kg of body weight per day may cause skin or vascular problems. That would be a limit of 2 mcg per day for a 15-pound baby. And based on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s data on rice, just one serving of rice cereal or many other rice products could put a baby close to that limit.
Adults and infants are both exposed to arsenic when eating rice, but it’s a bigger concern for developing babies. The FDA says rice intake for infants, primarily through infant rice cereal, is about three times greater than for adults relative to body weight.
What The Experts Say
Ultimately, it seems oatmeal cereal is healthier and preferable over rice, though the recommendations to offer baby cereal as a first food are changing. Many doctors are now advising against the use of rice cereal and/or introducing whole grains too early.
“Often, the first food is baby cereal, like rice or oatmeal. Some babies won’t take cereal, and that’s OK,” says Ruben J. Rucoba, MD. “There’s no harm in your baby skipping the cereal stage and going straight to pureed foods, but we do suggest trying cereal first. It has added iron, which your baby needs at this age. Plus, it’s a nice bridge from the pure liquid diet of breast milk or formula to more solid food.”
“What we’re realizing is that grains really don’t need to be a first choice,” says Dr. Anthony F. Porto, board-certified pediatric gastroenterologist and assistant professor of pediatrics and associate clinical chief at Yale University.
“I have been studying nutrition very carefully for more than a decade now and one of the things I have become convinced of is that white rice cereal can predispose to childhood obesity,” says Dr. Alan Greene, a pediatrician at Stanford University, who says that despite the wide-held belief that white rice cereal is a good choice for first foods, he disagrees. “In fact I think it is the tap root of the child obesity epidemic. The problem is that it is basically like feeding kids a spoonful of sugar.”
“This idea of giving them ‘smooshy,’ bland, wallpaper-tasting rice cereal because we believe it’s either easier on their taste buds or easier on their digestive system is becoming a very outdated first-foods-for-babies recommendation,” says Sara Peternell, master nutrition therapist in Denver, Colorado and co-author of Little Foodie: Baby Food Recipes for Babies and Toddlers with Taste. “We’re learning that grains may have somewhat of a detrimental effect. Babies have very immature digestive systems, so to speak, so when we introduce something that’s more of a refined grain, that takes a lot more energy from the digestive system to try to break it down and also to extract the nutrients.”
Other First-Food Options for Babies
So now if you’re confused about what to offer as a first food and don’t want to try cereal at all, you have lots of other options. Complex carbs such as butternut squash, sweet potatoes and zucchini are good options, as are grains such as oats, multigrain cereal, barley, quinoa and millet.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that other sources of iron aside from baby cereal can and should be introduced as some of baby’s first foods. These include fish, red meat, poultry and egg yolks.
Iron-laden foods such as fish, meat and poultry are also excellent to use in place of iron-fortified baby cereal as they contain heme iron which is more efficiently absorbed by the body.
At the end of the day, it’s your decision. Whether you decide to offer your baby rice cereal, oatmeal cereal or another option, remember to only let your baby try a new food every three to five days.