Infant Cereals: The Controversial First Food

Little Man has been on food for just over a month now and so far…well, let’s just say it hasn’t been spectacular.

His first taste of apples. He loves them, can’t you tell?
His first taste of apples. He loves them, can’t you tell?

He’s not overly fond of anything that isn’t breastmilk. We’ve tried a variety of food purees with some variation in texture, and even some things like oats mixed into his yogurt and shredded cheese for some first finger food exploration.

Nope. The dude just knows what he wants.

I casually mentioned this to his pediatrician at a recent appointment (unrelated – we saw a rash that wasn’t a rash and was in fact nothing…). I was worried about his iron levels, as Health Canada (among others) really pushes the idea that their first foods need to be high in iron so they don’t become anemic. She was not worried, as some babies just take longer to care about food, and said his breastmilk should be sufficient for his iron content for awhile. (Note that the AAP recommends breastfed babies start iron supplements from 4 months until at least 6 months. Health Canada does not.)

During this conversation, she mentioned infant cereals. They’re iron-fortified and quite bland so babies sometimes accept them better than other food. They also come in a few varieties, typically rice, oat and wheat.

But, just with choosing purees or baby led weaning, I knew the internet had something to say about this.

Infant cereals are a BIG point of contention among the internet moms. But why?

Why are infant cereals controversial?

If you’ve been in a mommy group on Facebook, you’ve heard quite a few lectures on infant cereals. Some moms use them, some are militantly opposed to them. But why?

Sometimes they’re up in arms about the use of infant cereal in bottles, a strategy often employed to make babies sleep longer or sometimes to help reflux. Admittedly, I get quite upset by this practice myself – it’s a choking hazard and, while I can’t speak to its helpfulness with reflux, studies have shown that it does nothing to help with their sleep. It also overloads them on calories, potentially leading to obesity later in life. You may gain nothing and accidentally cause your baby to be obese later in life or, worse yet, have your baby aspirate to death instead. Just say no.

However, a lot of internet moms have decided that infant cereals have no nutrition to them. They compare a spoonful of cereal to a spoonful of sugar. They say that feeding your baby cereal will lead to obesity in life.

But internet moms say a lot of things. What should you believe?

Are infant cereals healthy?

Lots of moms make the argument that infant cereals have no nutritional value. But why?

By simply looking at the back of the box, you can see that infant cereals are full of vitamins and minerals. They were recommended by my pediatrician and by Health Canada because they are fortified with that all-important iron. Many infant cereals also come fortified with probiotics, making them easier on your babe’s stomach, and DHA, which is good for brain development. You can also mix the cereal with breastmilk to increase the nutritional value.

Of course, the moms will argue that because the cereals are fortified with those nutrients and not naturally a source of them, the cereals are inferior. However, as another mom pointed out recently during one of these infant cereal debates, a lot of our food is fortified. Bread, milk, juice…fortification is used to expose us to a wide range of nutrients that benefit our health. In fact, many babies have already been exposed to fortified nutrients through infant formula. Anyone who has ever taken a vitamin supplement (again, lots of babies – vitamin D and/or iron supplements are common and recommended in many cases) has had “fortified” nutrients. They’re healthy and beneficial. And yet infant cereals continue to come under fire.

There are some debates about the glycemic index of infant cereals, aka how they affect our blood sugars. Most refined grains (white bread, for example) are known for their horrific effects on our blood sugars, leading to strong links with obesity. This could mean that avoiding cereals containing rice and/or wheat may be best for your infant’s health. The oat and whole grain cereals are better options.

This little guy isn’t too sure about his very watery oatmeal.
This little guy isn’t too sure about his very watery oatmeal.

What about rice cereal and arsenic?

So here’s the one exception – the one time that I’ll agree that an infant cereal is not the healthiest option.

Studies have found a link between rice and arsenic exposure, including worrying levels in infant rice cereals. Arsenic is a naturally occurring substance but can build up in the system, causing adverse health effects. I won’t go into the full details here, though there are many resources out there regarding arsenic exposure, including this great explanation relating specifically to infant rice cereals.

The long and the short of it is this: I wouldn’t want to make rice cereals a part of my baby’s daily eating habits. I also didn’t go out and buy any boxes of rice cereal for him. I did, however, receive a couple of sample packs perfect to slip down into his diaper bag for travel. I don’t think such little amounts on a one-off basis could really hurt him.

As mentioned above regarding the glycemic index, you can simply choose a different infant cereal variety to avoid this arsenic problem.

Isn’t iron from other sources better absorbed?

Yes. Again, I won’t go into excessive details, but the best (as in the most easily absorbed and used by your body) type of iron is called heme iron. It’s found in meat, poultry and fish. There’s nothing wrong with nonheme iron (from non-meat sources), it just isn’t as good.

The iron in infant cereals is nonheme. As a starter food, its iron contents may still be sufficient. To increase the absorption efficiency, you can pair cereals (or other nonheme sources) with heme sources and foods containing vitamin C.

If he keeps making faces like this about beef liver, he might have to have more infant cereals.
If he keeps making faces like this about beef liver, he might have to have more infant cereals.

So what’s the verdict?

That’s up to you. Every parent needs to do their own research and make their own choices.

Personally, we’re planning on avoiding rice cereals, except for potentially using those few travel packs that I got for free. I’ve got a box of oat cereal that I’m planning to take to Quebec City when I travel there with Mom next month.

I think cereal is a convenience food – mix with water or breastmilk and you’re ready to go – but that doesn’t make it bad. There’s a reason it was recommended by my pediatrician – it’s high in iron and other nutrients plus it’s often one of the more readily accepted foods when first introducing solids.

Do you have to give cereals? Of course not. There are lots of great, nutrient-rich first foods you can give instead. For iron, you can give your child meat, poultry or fish. For probiotics, you can use drops or try yogurt and other fermented foods. A variety of fruits and vegetables are healthy for anyone, including your little one.

And, as always, moderation is key.

Have you heard some really negative things about infant cereals lately? Wondering what all the hype is about? Here are my thoughts on this controversial first food.

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