Is Baby Cereal the Best First Food for Your Baby?

A Diverse Diet Can Help Your Baby Eat Healthy for Life

Mother feeding baby
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 Baby cereal is a common first food choice for many parents, particularly in the United States. Most often, this is a rice cereal, though you might be wondering if this is the best and only option you have for your baby.

While it is recommended that babies begin eating solid food around 6 months, and infant cereal is often the go-to option, it may be best to diversify your baby's diet. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends introducing a variety of colors, flavors, and textures to your baby once you start offering solid foods. This can help your baby stay healthy, get the vital nutrients needed, and even prevent picky eaters in the future.

Baby Cereal as a First Food

It might be helpful to take a glimpse of first foods throughout history. For centuries, the norm was to breastfeed for a year or longer and introduce first foods that reflected the foods of the area later in the first year of life. Those foods tended to be fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and meats. However, the past two generations of parents shifted the norm to bottle-feeding formula and introducing baby cereal to newborns.

Part of the reason infant cereal became a part of a baby's diet had to do with the quality of the formula. In those days, the formula was not the same quality that it is today, and cereal seemed to help the formula stay in the baby's stomach. We now know that introducing cereals before 3 months of age puts babies at risk for health problems, including obesity later in life.

So the effect of the past two generations has influenced feeding practices that go on today. There certainly are reasons why baby cereal is a logical choice for first food. It's generally easy to digest and iron-fortified which most babies need. It is also considered to be a low-allergen food (particularly rice cereal).

Baby Cereal

There are many healthy options when it comes to solid foods that your baby can eat. Baby cereals that are fortified with iron are good choices. You can choose a single-grain infant cereal, such as rice, oat, or barley, or a multi-grain option.

In 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) first released a warning about the level of inorganic arsenic present in rice products, including the popular infant cereals. This led to understandable concern among parents, but a 2016 follow-up from the FDA proposed a new limit to the arsenic in these foods and it was endorsed by the AAP.

Given these developments, the recommendation from the AAP is for parents to use rice cereal as only one source of solid food and one piece of a healthy diet. Providing other grain cereals in addition to rice is a good first step, but you can go even further.

Solid Food Alternatives

The goal with solid foods is that you want your baby to get all of the essential vitamins and nutrients needed for a healthy diet. Not only does this improve overall health, it can also help diversify your baby's palate for a lifetime of enjoying nutritious foods. The AAP notes that babies develop their taste patterns by 9 months, so you have just three months to try and prevent picky eating habits.

Fruit and vegetable purees, including jarred baby food, as well as finely chopped meats for protein, can be added to your baby's diet. The good news is that it only takes one or two tablespoons of each food at any meal to introduce these healthy eating habits.

These foods don't have to be complex, either, and it's often best to begin with a single food per serving (e.g., green bean puree). Some, such as bananas and sweet potatoes, can even be mashed with a fork, so you don't have to pull out the food processor for every meal. Also, you can prepare small amounts of a variety of baby-friendly foods ahead of time so they're ready for any meal.

Babies can be picky eaters, though, and this can be frustrating to parents! Included in the AAP recommendations is the acknowledgment that it may take you 10 to 15 times to successfully introduce a new food. Patience is key, as is introducing new foods gradually.

As you're starting solid foods, keep in mind that breastmilk is primarily carbohydrates and that cereal provides this. Adding these fruits, veggies, and meats can expand the nutrients that babies get beginning at 6 months of age:

  • Ripe banana, avocado, yam, or sweet potato (6 months)
  • Meats; well-cooked and finely chopped so baby doesn't choke
  • Whole-grain breads and cereals as opposed to baby cereal
  • Fresh fruit (delaying citrus until 9 to 12 months)
  • Vegetables
  • Dairy products at 9 months; wait for whole cow's milk until after a year

Fruits and vegetables only have to be pureed until your baby is ready to eat soft foods by hand.

It's important to talk to your pediatrician before starting solids, especially if your family has a history of food allergies. This conversation can offer direct guidance on what types and varieties of food your baby can be introduced to and when to do that.

Vegetables Before Fruits

Perhaps you've heard that if you offer sweet fruits before vegetables, your baby will develop a "sweet tooth." No medical research supports that and babies are born with a natural preference for sweets. That's why it's hard for even adults to resist them. Further, consider breastfed babies and the fact that breastmilk is very sweet to begin with.

You really do not need to fret over whether to start with fruits or vegetables. Some parents do find that things go smoother if they offer a vegetable before fruit at a meal or hold the fruit for a snack. It's something you'll want to gauge based on your baby's habits.

A Word From Verywell

First food for your baby doesn't mean that you're left feeding a single food for the first few weeks or months. While cereals are a good choice, try to offer a healthy variety and let baby join the family at mealtime to encourage good eating habits. Be sure to consult your pediatrician before you begin, and you and your baby will be ready to embrace a whole new world.

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Article Sources
  • American Academy of Pediatrics. AAP Welcomes FDA Announcement on Limiting Arsenic in Infant Rice Cereal. 2016. 
  • American Academy of Pediatrics. Healthy Habits Start Early: Tips for Introducing Solid Foods. 2017. https://ihcw.aap.org/Documents/Early%20Feeding/Solid%20Foods/AAP-SolidFoods-2017-08-22-CMYK.pdf
  • American Academy of Pediatrics. Starting Solid Foods. HealthyChildren.org. 2018.
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration. For Consumers: Seven Things Pregnant Women and Parents Need to Know About Arsenic in Rice and Rice Cereal. 2016.