Baby cereal is the food of choice for many parents, especially in the United States. For the most part, it’s rice cereal, although you may be wondering if this is the best and only option for your baby.
While it is recommended that infants begin eating solid foods around six months of age, and baby cereal is often the preferred choice in this country, it is best to diversify your baby’s diet for several reasons. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that once you start offering solid foods, introduce a variety of colors, flavors and textures.
Baby cereal as a first food
It may be helpful to look back at the first foods in history. For centuries, the norm was to breastfeed for a year or more and to introduce the first foods that reflected the foods of the area in the first year of life. These foods were usually fruits, vegetables, whole grains and meats.
However, the past two generations of parents included bottle-fed formula and infant cereals introduced to newborns. We now know that consuming grains before the infant is four months old puts the infant at risk for health problems.3
Thus, the influence of the past two generations has influenced the way feeding is done today. There are certainly some reasons why infant cereal is a logical choice as a first food. It is usually easily digestible and iron-fortified, which is what most infants need. However, these needs can also be met with foods that are naturally rich in iron.
There are many choices when it comes to your baby’s first solid foods. Baby cereals are one option, fortified with iron. You can choose single-grain baby cereals, such as rice, oats, or barley, or a multi-grain option that combines two or more.
One concern raised by baby cereals is the detection of arsenic in some baby rice cereals.In 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) first issued a warning about the amount of inorganic arsenic in rice products, including popular baby cereals. This understandably raised concerns among parents, but a follow-up proposal from the FDA in 2016 set new limits on the amount of arsenic in these foods, which is consistent with the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics
If you choose cereal as your baby’s first food, it’s best to include grains other than rice so that your baby doesn’t eat only rice cereal at each meal. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation is that parents should use rice as the only source of solids and a healthy diet.6
Offering other grains besides rice is a good first step, but you can go much further.
Solid Food Alternatives
The goal of solid foods is not just to provide key nutrients, but to provide an introduction to a variety of flavors and social eating experiences. This is important not only for overall health, but also to help diversify your baby’s tastes as he or she enjoys nutrient-rich foods throughout life.
Fruits and vegetables, beans and lentils, meats, eggs, nuts and seed butter, and other foods eaten by the whole family can all be safe as first foods. Some parents choose to introduce these foods with gumbo, including canned baby food. Others choose to include safe, appropriate versions of foods that babies can feed themselves through a technique called baby-led weaning.
The good news is that only a small amount of food per meal is needed to introduce these healthy eating habits. Touching and tasting food is an important part of developing a relationship with food.
These foods are not complicated. Some foods, like bananas and steamed sweet potatoes, can even be mashed with a fork so you don’t have to pull out the food processor at every meal. Or, if you’re using baby-led weaning, give your infant soft bananas or steamed sweet potatoes in small pieces that they can hold and feed themselves. Also, you can prepare some baby-friendly foods ahead of time so they can enjoy them whenever they want.
When you start solid foods, remember that variety not only increases the range of nutrients your infant gets, but also the variety of flavors. Adding these fruits, vegetables and meats will increase the nutrition your baby receives by the time he or she is six months old:
Ripe bananas or avocados
Steamed yams or sweet potatoes
Meat; cooked and chopped so the infant does not choke
Whole grain breads and cereals instead of baby cereals
Dairy products; wait until a year before drinking whole milk
Fruits and vegetables need to be stirred only until your baby is ready to eat soft foods with his or her hands. Babies can eat dairy products (excluding whole milk) when the texture is developmentally appropriate: first yogurt, then small pieces of cheese, etc. If you are using baby-led weaning techniques, skip the purees and give your infant soft foods to eat by hand from the beginning.
It’s important to talk to your pediatrician before starting solids, especially if your family has a history of food allergies.
A word from Verywell
Choosing the first food for your baby doesn’t mean you have to feed only that one food for the first few weeks or months. While cereal may be the right choice for your family, including a variety of growth- and developmentally appropriate foods whenever possible allows your baby to join the family at mealtime and encourages healthy eating habits that can last a lifetime. Be sure to consult your pediatrician before you start so you and your baby can embrace a whole new world.