3 Things to Know About Baby Cereal

Many pediatricians agree that baby cereal is an ideal first food. Here's what you should know about the mushy, soft, iron-fortified product.

Baby Eating Infant Cereal In High Chair
Photo: Aimee Herring

When your pediatrician gives you the go-ahead to introduce solids to your baby, usually around 4-6 months, one of the most popular first foods is baby cereal. These mushy, soft concoctions can be made with various ingredients, including rice, barley, oats, and mixed grains. They help satisfy a baby's growing appetite and provide critical nutrients such as iron. Here are three things parents should know about baby cereal.

Baby Cereal Provides Much-Needed Iron

Iron is critical for healthy brain development, says Erin Quann, Ph.D., R.D., director of nutrition research at Gerber. The nutrient is especially important for breastfed babies since breast milk contains very little. Just two 1/4-cup servings of iron-fortified infant cereal (oatmeal, rice, barley, or mixed grains) deliver most of your baby's daily iron needs. Infant cereal also provides other nutrients, such as zinc, calcium, and vitamins B, C, and E.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains that babies are typically born with sufficient iron in their systems that can last them for about their first six months of life. But after that, iron needs to become an important part of a balanced, nutritional diet. Since babies usually begin eating solids around 4 to 6 months, adding iron to cereals is an excellent way to ensure that your baby's iron needs are being met.

If a baby does not get enough iron, they can develop an iron deficiency called anemia. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), iron deficiency in babies is a worldwide problem affecting children in developing and industrialized nations that can cause serious, permanent neurological and behavioral development.

Baby Cereal Can Be a Teaching Tool

Once your baby adapts to the mushy texture of baby cereal, you can gradually make it thicker by adding less liquid (breast milk or formula). The familiar bland-tasting flavor guarantees eager eating, while the thicker textures help your baby learn how to chew and swallow.

Thickened baby cereal also has potential health benefits: Babies with gastroesophageal reflux (GERD) or dysphagia need their food thicker to swallow safely. Since a thicker cereal can help reduce reflux, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the AAP suggest that parents consider giving their babies oatmeal. And because oatmeal is not a member of the wheat family, it's safe for kids with celiac disease—though for added security, doctors suggest sticking with oatmeal products labeled as gluten-free.

Experts admit that you'll probably need to play around with different oatmeals to achieve a just-right consistency. If your infant is drinking oatmeal baby cereal from a bottle, you may need to try different nipples, too. "Consultation with feeding specialists who can provide specialized assessment often is needed," according to the AAP.

What's more, the semi-solid texture of baby cereal serves as a stepping stone for other finger foods, such as softened fruits, vegetables, and meats. Your baby may have an easier time starting on solids if they try baby cereal first.

Baby Cereal is Safe to Eat

A concerning study found that baby rice cereals contain an average of six times the level of arsenic as other grain cereals. It's still OK to serve them in moderation because they've passed FDA safety requirements, says Frank Greer, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. But if you're concerned, skip rice-based products: Other varieties—like barley and mixed grains—deliver the same iron-rich benefits.

With so many options on the market, avoiding rice cereal doesn't have to be a huge obstacle. Parents can purchase fortified multi-grain, oatmeal, wheat, barley, quinoa, and buckwheat options. Or you can try making cereals at home by grinding up grains and adding formula or breastmilk until you get the thickness and consistency your baby loves.

Talk to your pediatrician if you're worried about the safety of certain grains or which types of baby cereal your baby should start with.

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