Should you give your baby rice cereal? It’s a common question new parents have. In a nutshell, it’s not needed, or even recommended anymore! Keep reading for what you need to know about rice cereal and whether you should give it or not, as well as what your other options are.
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For a long time now, rice cereal has been recommended as the first food for starting babies on solid foods, or in other words anything other than breast milk or formula. But over the last several years several concerns have come to light about it.
Consumer Reports has been sounding the alarm for several years about the content of arsenic in rice. Even more specifically, they're concerned about arsenic in rice in baby food products. And they are not alone. The FDA currently has draft recommendations out for updated standards for amounts of arsenic that baby foods can have in them. Many foods on the market here in the United States are quite close to the limit!
According to a new study, 4 out of the 7 rice cereals that were tested had levels of arsenic that were higher than the proposed FDA limits of 100 parts per billion.
Arsenic specifically can lead to things like lower IQs in children. Arsenic and the other heavy metal contaminants, like lead and cadmium, are considered neurotoxins and are often found together in foods. (Ref) They have been linked to learning problems, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancers, and reproductive problems later in life. (Ref)
Babies are at a particularly high risk for heavy metal contamination. They eat comparatively more food for their body size than adults do. They also tend to be fed diets that are not highly varied. Whether it is serving rice cereal for every meal for a long time, or serving other baby products with high levels of rice frequently, babies are often continually exposed to just a handful of foods.
Arsenic is found naturally in soil and water. Rice generally has higher levels of it than other crops simply because rice is able to take up more arsenic in general. It is also grown under flooded conditions, which increase the amount of available arsenic from water.
The FDA currently has draft limits of 100 parts per billion in the US. But after over three years these have still not been finalized. Technically no amount of heavy metals are considered safe. But the reality is it is the buildup of arsenic and other heavy metals we are concerned with.
With that in mind it is not the recommendation to avoid rice completely! Rice can have nutrients in it that are beneficial, but we do not want to rely on it as our main food. Just like we don’t want to rely on any other one food in our baby’s diet.
The most important thing you can do is to vary the foods you feed your baby. Don’t feed them rice cereal for every meal, or even other foods or products that contain rice at every meal. Alternate rice into your food every couple of days. That in and of itself should limit exposure to arsenic to acceptable levels.
Rice cereal was originally recommended as a first food for babies because it wasn’t an allergen like wheat. It was thought that because it is essentially a very bland and flavorless food, it would be a good start for babies. But we know better now! Not only is it bland tasting, but it is almost universally contaminated with heavy metals. (Ref) We also know that we actually want to introduce allergens early to help prevent future allergies, instead of completely avoiding. So before introducing rice cereal as the main food in your baby’s diet, consider other options that are out there.
There are many different cereals out there on the market. From oatmeal, to barley, there is no need to serve just one! Start with one type, then after a few days aim to switch it up and incorporate another type of cereal into your baby’s diet.
The best thing you can do is to introduce variety into your baby’s diet, even with their cereal! Of note, the recent study found that non-rice and multi-grain varieties of baby cereal contained 84% less arsenic than rice cereal, and 64% less total heavy metals.
The best bet on the market now for those who want to introduce a cereal to your baby that has just one grain in it. Click here for my favorite brand. You can also try something like barley as the single grain.
As a way to increase variety, introduce a baby cereal that is multi-grain, like this one with oats and quinoa.
No matter which cereal you choose, the number one thing it needs to have is iron! Iron is the main nutrient of concern for babies when starting solid foods, and really infant cereal is primarily a medium to get iron in. If you choose a cereal that isn’t fortified with iron and use it as your baby’s primary food, they will be lacking the nutrients they need.
Just when should you start introducing cereal to your baby? The current recommendations from the major health organizations around the world are to introduce complementary foods, or anything other than breast milk or formula, when your baby shows the developmental signs of readiness.
For a run down of what signs to look for, head to this article on starting solids. It is best not to go by a strict age here, as all babies develop differently and will be ready for foods at different times. However, it is generally going to be closer to 6 months than 4 months.
Many pediatricians are not fully up to date on the latest recommendations. I still hear from many parents that they are being advised to start infant rice cereal right around 4 months. In some cases even earlier!
This is, unfortunately, out of date information. There are only very rare cases where this would still be the recommendation with rice cereal. And for foods in general, early introduction is really only for babies in the high risk category for allergies if anyone.
If your pediatrician is recommending you start solid foods right at 4 months, even if it is just introducing baby cereal to your baby, I recommend discussing their reasoning with them. Are they aware of the current American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines to wait until developmentally ready instead of right at 4 months? (This generally will lead to babies starting closer to the 6 month mark.) There are many different reasons to wait until your baby is truly ready for foods, and those reasons span the spectrum from social to physical and medical issues.
Just like using rice cereal in general is an out of date recommendation, so is putting rice cereal in a bottle- or any cereal for that matter! Many people thought that by putting baby cereal in a bottle, it would help babies to sleep longer, especially through the night. We know now, though, that baby sleep is mainly developmental. Babies do not usually sleep through the night between 4-6 months on their own, and adding cereal to their bottle is not the way to change that.
No! Over the last several years, baby led weaning has become popular around the world. In baby led weaning, you generally skip the artificially pureed foods and go straight to finger foods the baby can pick up. The benefits to this are many, but in light of all of the recent findings about baby food products being contaminated with heavy metals, one of the main benefits is sticking to family foods and not traditional baby food products or even homemade baby food.
This generally means that babies get a variety of foods right from the beginning, instead of being slowly introduced to foods by eating one food for a long period of time. And as you’ve seen, the goal is not to eliminate any of the specific foods that might have heavy metals, but instead to focus on serving a variety of foods.
Serving family foods that the rest of their family is eating is an amazing way to focus on variety. It is just one way that using a more baby led weaning style of feeding can be beneficial.
Want to know more about baby led weaning and how to even go about it? Sign up for the starting solids course! It walks you through everything you need to know to start solid foods, including how to do it safely so you are serving your baby a variety of balanced meals that are appropriate for their age!
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