Once Again, The “Experts” Have it All Wrong
If there is anything that our modern culture gets totally wrong, it’s how to feed babies and properly introduce solid foods. Pediatricians, dieticians, and other “experts” are quick to recommend that the perfect first food for babies at about the age of 4-6 months is rice cereal. Not only is this advice completely misguided, it is also extremely harmful to the long term health of the child, contributing greatly to the epidemic of fat toddlers and the worrisome childhood obesity problem in general.
Rice cereal is not a healthy first food for babies.
Not only is it an extremely high glycemic food (spikes the blood sugar) but it also contains ample amounts of double sugar (disaccharide) molecules, which are extremely hard for such an immature digestive system to digest. The small intestine of a baby mostly produces only one carbohydrate enzyme, lactase, for digestion of the lactose in milk. It produces little to no amylase, the enzyme needed for grain digestion.
What happens when a baby’s digestive system doesn’t properly digest a food? It rots, yes ROTS (my eleven year old asked me to emphasize this point – he said it was so gross that people would pay more attention) in the gut feeding all manner of pathogenic bacteria and fungi ushering the child quickly down the path to allergies, asthma, eczema, and other autoimmune disorders. I have nicknamed this syndrome “Garbage Gut”. Over time, the pathogens and their toxins create holes in the gut wall allowing the toxins to spill directly into the blood creating an unpredictable mix of neurological symptoms. Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride MD’s book Gut and Psychology Syndrome examines in detail the link between an imbalanced, pathogen dominated gut environment and abnormal behavior and/or autoimmune disorders in children.
Interestingly, avoidance of allergies is one of the reasons cited by pediatricians for using rice cereal as the first food! While rice may be gluten free, it is by no means disaccharide free and can contribute to the development of allergies and other autoimmune disorders just the same as a gluten containing cereal such as wheat or spelt. This is why going “gluten free” does not solve digestive ailments in the majority of children with auto immune issues linked to grain allergies. This approach may reduce symptoms somewhat, but it does not solve the problem entirely as the disaccharide molecule is still present in high amounts in non gluten containing grains and a similarly hard to digest starch molecule is present in grain substitutes such as potato flour, arrowroot, bean flours, etc.
Why then, is rice cereal so very popular as a first food to feed babies? One reason is that it is so readily accepted by the baby (who wouldn’t like a food that spikes the blood sugar? It is a bit of a “high” after all) and it fills them up like a lead brick leading to longer and more frequent periods of sleeping and more passive behavior in general. Be aware that there are still some misinformed doctors that advise mothers of babies that do not sleep well to introduce rice cereal as early as 3 months old – sometimes right into the baby bottle if the tongue thrust reflex hasn’t yet disappeared preventing the baby from taking food off a spoon! This is a recipe for childhood weight problems if I’ve ever heard one.
If your baby zonks out right after eating on a frequent basis, this is a major clue that what the child has just eaten was not easily digested (this goes for breastfeeding too .. a poor diet that is not digested well by the breastfeeding Mother will result in toxins in her breastmilk which will have an opiate like effect on the child). Dr. McBride’s book mentioned above discusses this huge issue of toxins from undigested food and gut pathogens in the breastmilk as well. The same goes for adults, by the way. If you get sleepy after eating, it’s because what you just ate isn’t getting handled very well by your gut. The body is basically compensating for the brick in your stomach by putting you to sleep so that a sufficient amount of energy can be diverted to digestion.
So What is the Right First Food for Babies?
A baby’s digestive system is much better equipped to handle fats and proteins than carbohydrates. For this reason, a wonderful first food for babies is a soft boiled egg yolk from a pastured hen. Take care to only use the yolk and not the egg white which contains difficult to digest proteins. For my own children, I started giving a taste of a soft boiled egg yolk from my own plate starting at about 4-6 months old. Just a taste! If the child is completely uninterested, then try again in a week or two. If the child likes the little taste that you put on her tongue or lip, then give her two tastes the next day and three tastes the next day, gradually building up to the entire egg yolk. Never force the child to eat. Remember that egg yolk is an extremely rich food and force feeding any rich food can cause the child to vomit.
Egg yolk from pastured chickens contain ample amounts of omega 3 fatty acids and natural cholesterol which are critical to a child’s mental development and may be lacking in breastmilk depending on the quality of the mother’s diet. Children who receive sufficient omega 3 fats in their diet tend to speak clearly and understand verbal direction from the parents at a very early age.
I just went back and looked at my children’s baby books and all 3 of them (even the boys) spoke short sentences by 15-17 months of age (with first words at around 7 months). While these sentences were very simple (“Get that”, “Don’t want that”, “More of this”) I have no doubt that getting ample omega 3’s from their diet played a big part in their ease of communicating at an early age with clear enough diction to be understood by even those outside the family.
At about 6 months of age, a bit of raw, grassfed beef or buffalo liver can be grated into the warm egg yolk for baby to eat. This mimics the traditional practice of African mother’s who would chew raw liver and then give small amounts to their babies as a first food. Make sure that the raw liver is frozen for a minimum of 14 days as recommended by the USDA to eliminate any concern over parasites. Mashed banana is also a wonderful carbohydrate to add around this time as banana digests very easily due to the copious amounts of amylase present – no need for baby’s small intestine to produce it herself.
At the age of 10 months or so, pureed meats, fruits and vegetables can be added. These foods should be introduced one at a time to reduce any chance of a reaction. Best also to avoid high starch veggies like potatoes and sweet potato, which contain very complex starch molecules which are much more difficult to digest for baby than non starchy vegetables. Take the time to make your babyfood at home with organic ingredients and mash the veggies with some deep yellow, grassfed butter. Consumption of veggies with a bit of healthy fat like butter increases mineral absorption tremendously! You can freeze your homemade babyfood in ice cube trays for a quick thaw in a small sauce pan (not the microwave!) for fast and nutritious meals. Homemade soups made with real chicken, turkey, or beef broth rank as one of the most nutritious foods for babies to be eating at this age. The gelatin in the homemade broth is protective against any intestinal bugs that baby may be exposed to and it also facilitates digestion.
When Should Grains be Introduced?
It’s a good idea to delay introduction of grain based foods and starchy vegetables for as long as possible. Some experts advise that the child be 2 years old before being given these foods to eat. Whatever you decide, it is wise to forgo them until well after the first birthday. Even then, the grains should be properly prepared (either sprouted, sour leavened or soaked) to ensure maximum digestibility through breakdown of the starch, gluten and antinutrients such as phytic acid.
It will take every ounce of your will power to keep the grain based foods out of your child’s mouth until well after her first birthday (the longer the better). Teething biscuits, cheerios, crackers, and bread are all favorite foods for moms to feed as soon as the child can sit up in a high chair and grab from a plate. The first thing most Moms hand to a baby in a high chair at a restaurant is a piece of bread from the bread basket. Don’t do it! Resist the temptation to use these foods as a pacifier for your child and commit to offering only truly nourishing fare at such a young age. The time will come soon enough when the child will have more control over his/her food choices, so wisely use this time of complete control to make sure every calorie your baby eats is nutrient dense and easily digested!
Skip the Fruit Juice!
On a final note, whatever you do, skip the fruit juice! Fruit juice from the store, even if organic, is just sugar water (all the nutrition has been pasteurized away) and only serves to spike the blood sugar and increase the risk of obesity. It also kills the child’s appetite for hours, even a day or two. Many a Mom has told me that when she took away the fruit juice, within a few days, her picky eater suddenly started eating!
The one exception would be freshly pressed juice diluted with some filtered water. Fresh fruit juice is full of enzymes and nutrition and would be an acceptable drink for baby on occasion after age 10 months or so.
*Click here for my videoblog on how to prepare the best first food for your baby.
Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist