When Babies Can Eat Wheat or Gluten

Baby boy (12-15 months) sitting in high chair eating cereal
Noel Hendrickson / Getty Images

In the past, doctors often recommend rice cereal as a baby's first food, at around four to six months of age. Babies tend to tolerate rice cereal well. Oatmeal and barley were other popular options. However, we now know that there is a wide range of foods that can work as baby's first solid food.

While wheat is on the big eight list of food allergies, it tends to affect adults more than young children. Pediatricians and allergists once thought that delaying a baby's exposure to allergenic foods, including wheat, could help prevent allergies.

But current advice is actually the opposite, with some research showing that there is a somewhat increased risk of wheat allergy if grains are introduced after six months: "Delaying exposure until after six months was associated with an increased risk of wheat allergy, not a protective effect," researchers wrote in the journal Pediatrics. "In addition, these findings confirm the role of family history of allergy as a predictor of food allergy outcomes in children. Our results support continuing the current recommendations of first introducing cereal products between four and six months of age."

More recent research and policy advice from the American Academy of Pediatrics supports this finding, noting that avoiding allergens does not seem to protect babies from developing allergic reactions.

If You Have Allergies in the Family

Consult your health care provider about how to introduce your baby to solid foods. Often, the safest food to begin with in a child with a family history of allergies is oats, at six months.

Whether or not you have a history of allergies, the first time you introduce wheat, be sure to watch for the signs of an allergic reaction (hives, difficulty breathing or asthma symptoms, swelling of the mouth or throat, vomiting or diarrhea, and loss of consciousness). Know how to respond and be ready to call 9-1-1 immediately.

Wheat Allergy vs. Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is an auto-immune disease in which ingestion of gluten leads to damage of the small intestine. Celiac disease can appear in infancy and may appear as early as the first time a child consumes food containing gluten. Symptoms can vary greatly from baby to baby, and might include abdominal pain, diarrhea with very foul stools, constipation, weight loss and/or growth problems, rashes, mouth sores, anemia, excessive gas, irritability, and vomiting.

A wheat allergy occurs when the body produces antibodies to proteins found in wheat. In celiac disease, there is an auto-immune response to gluten, which is a specific protein found in wheat as well as rye, barley, and some oats. Some symptoms of wheat allergy and celiac disease can be similar.

Some evidence suggests that introducing foods containing gluten either too early (before four months) or too late may actually increase the risk of celiac disease. Caregivers of infants can possibly minimize the risk by introducing wheat or barley containing foods no earlier than four months and no later than six months. This is especially true for children who are already at risk of developing celiac disease.

If you see symptoms like diarrhea, poor appetite, slow growth and chronic stomach pain in your baby, talk to your health care provider. If you have a family history of celiac disease, it's important for your baby to get tested. First-degree relatives of someone with celiac disease have an increased risk. If a baby is showing any of the symptoms mentioned above, or you suspect they might have celiac disease for another reason, speak to your pediatrician immediately. But do not remove gluten from a child's diet before seeing a doctor for testing, as this can invalidate the test for celiac disease.

If your infant is diagnosed with celiac disease, you will need to remove any foods containing wheat, rye, barley, and in some cases oats from their diet. Because this will affect meal preparation, setting up the kitchen to limit cross contamination, and overall food choices, it's important to seek help and support either via a registered dietitian or your pediatrician.

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