Rice cereal is the most common first food recommended by doctors and pediatricians and is widely accepted as the norm when introducing solid foods to a baby.
Rice cereal has a relatively bland taste, which some experts think makes it more acceptable to babies. It is believed to be a relatively low-allergenic food, making it a safe food to begin with. The main reason it is recommended, however, is because infant cereals are fortified with iron, and it is believed that the iron stores of infants begin to deplete at around six months of age.
Infant cereals were developed at a time when mothers were told that there was no need to breastfeed as formula was superior to breast milk. Infant formulas did not contain any iron until 1959, so iron-fortified infant cereal was an important part of a baby's diet at that time. The cereal was introduced into the diet early as a way to ensure that babies received a sufficient amount of iron. Infant formulas are now fortified with iron, so adding an iron-fortified cereal to the diet is unnecessary and can often cause constipation from the excess iron. That being said, the combination of white rice and supplemental iron can also constipate a breastfed baby, or even an adult for that matter.
Commercial infant rice cereals are highly processed, containing refined white rice flour, along with many undesirable ingredients. When introducing solid foods, we are told to wait 3-4 days between each new food to ensure there is no reaction. If the first food you introduced was rice cereal, however, you would be introducing rice, and depending on the brand, cow's milk, corn, soy and variety of oils, all at the same time. If your baby has a reaction, how are you to know the true culprit? If you wanted to start with cereal, there are other options, including organic brands which use brown rice or oats and outside of the added vitamins/minerals, do not include any other additives.
The main problem with cereals as a first food is that babies cannot digest grains well until a much older age than they are typically introduced. Grains are carbohydrates, which need to be broken down with digestive enzymes called amylase. Amylase found in saliva starts to appear at around three months of age and reaches low adult levels by age five to six months. Salivary amylase alone is enough to digest starches such as sweet potatoes or squashes, but to fully digest grains, we also require pancreatic amylase, which is not fully developed at this stage.
Aviva Allen, is a Toronto-based Kid's Nutritionist who teaches new moms about introducing solids to their babies, through small group workshops around the GTA, as well as private sessions for individuals. Click here for more information about upcoming Introducing Solids workshops.