Is Infant Cereal the Best Choice for Your Baby's First Food?

Baby being fed infant cereal with a spoon
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The philosophies of starting first foods for your baby can really vary. And when it comes to infant cereal, and whether it is the ideal first food choice, opinions are about as varied as the brands of baby food available. It can be confusing to know where, when, and how to begin solids in general. Starting solids doesn't have to be difficult, though. Whether you start with cereal or another food, there are lots of resources to help simplify first food basics and ensure safety, and your baby will soon be exploring the world of solid foods.

Infant Cereal Is the Traditional Choice for First Food

Infant cereal has been the traditional choice of first food, but only in the U.S. and only for about two generations. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) acknowledges that for typically healthy babies, there is no evidence stating that starting with infant cereal yields greater health benefits over starting other common first foods.

They go on to recommend that infants begin solids around six months of age, though the primary source of nutrition at that age should still be from breast milk or infant formula.

Support for Starting With Single Grain Cereals

Why is infant cereal such a popular choice? Those who advocate beginning with infant cereal do so because:

  • Taste: Infant cereal is bland in flavor and picks up the taste of the formula or breast milk that it is mixed with. Therefore, some feel it will be more palatable to the baby.
  • Iron needs: Around six months of age, babies typically tend to use up all their iron stores and need iron in the diet. Since most cereals are iron-fortified, this is one way to address that nutritional need.
  • Allergies: It is believed that single grain cereal, particularly rice cereal, has a lower risk for allergic reaction than other solid foods and mixed grain cereals.

However, there is a risk of arsenic exposure if babies eat too much rice cereal, so parents should diversify the type of cereal babies eat to limit this exposure (add oatmeal, barley cereal, etc.).

Never Put Cereal in a Bottle

You may have heard the suggestion to feed your baby a bottle of formula or breast milk mixed with infant cereal. For healthy babies, this is an unwise and unsafe choice. For babies with no health problems, the risks far outweigh any potential benefits. It's best if your baby begins solids by eating off a spoon and not drinking them out of a bottle.

Support for Starting With Other Foods Instead

There are several reasons you might decide to begin your baby on foods other than infant cereal, including:

  • Variety of flavor: Babies have already been introduced to many flavors in utero and via breast milk, so they need not be limited to bland foods like infant cereal.
  • Iron needs: Red meat, liver, lentils, and beans all offer iron along with other nutrients. For instance, red meat offers zinc and iron. Lentils offer fiber and iron. Babies can eat these foods as long as they are prepared in a developmentally appropriate way.
  • Family meals: Whether you’re using the baby-led weaning technique or pureed baby foods, opting for a variety of foods other than cereals can allow your baby to experience similar flavors to the rest of the family. For example, while caregivers eat carrots, lamb, and potatoes, baby could have the pureed versions of these foods. Baby-led feeding means less need to prepare separate meals and almost no need to buy specialty baby foods.

A Word From Verywell

A conversation with your pediatrician may help you to decide the best starting point for your baby. Your baby's unique health history is key to choosing which foods they should start on and when you should begin. No matter what first food you choose, eat alongside your baby. This way, they see you eating and learn how to eat. But they also learn and benefit from the social cues and interactions that happen at shared mealtimes.

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