When Babies Can Eat Wheat or Gluten

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

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 because it lacks gluten and isn't very likely to cause an allergic reaction. Oatmeal and barley are other popular options that follow soon after solids are started. Then, it is typically safe to continue to wheat cereal (or mixed-grain cereal, which usually contains wheat). Note that teething biscuits, zwieback toasts, and pasta are all often made from wheat.

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 a condition where eating foods containing gluten causes the immune system to react and attack the stomach lining, sometimes causing permanent damage. Celiac disease can appear in infancy and may appear as early as the first time a child consumes food containing gluten. Symptoms include pain, diarrhea, and weight loss and/or growth problems. In a wheat allergy, symptoms include atopic dermatitis (hives) and respiratory problems.

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. Mothers who are currently breastfeeding can possibly minimize the risk by introducing wheat or barley cereal 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 to find out if you should stop giving your child foods containing wheat, barley, and rye. Rice is gluten-free, and oatmeal is generally considered safe, though there may be cross-contamination issues in facilities that also produce foods with wheat.

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