Not only is this advice completely misguided, it is also extremely harmful to the long term health of the child. Such advice contributes greatly to the epidemic of fat toddlers and the growing childhood obesity crisis.
Rice cereal is not a healthy first food for babies
Rice cereal is an extremely high glycemic food. This means that it spikes the blood sugar rapidly. It also contains ample amounts of double sugar (disaccharide) molecules, which are extremely hard for 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.
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. Thus, it 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 autoimmune issues linked to grain allergies.
This approach may reduce symptoms somewhat, but it does not solve the problem entirely. The disaccharide molecule is still present in high amounts in gluten free grains. A similarly hard to digest starch molecule is present in grain substitutes such as potato flour, arrowroot, bean flours, etc.
Rice Cereal Now, Weight Issues Later?
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.
Even Health Canada recognizes the dangers of cereal as a first food for babies and recommends against it.
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.
Benefits of Egg Yolk for Babies
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. First words (Mama or Dada) occurred 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 fats from their diet played a big part in their ease of communicating at an early age. The pronunciation was clear enough to be understood even by those outside the family too.
At 6 Months of Age
At about 6 months of age, grate a bit of raw, grassfed beef or chicken liver into the warm egg yolk for baby to eat. This mimics the traditional practice of African mothers 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 risk of parasites. Mashed banana is also a wonderful carbohydrate to add around this time. Banana digests very easily due to the copious amounts of amylase present. When the enzyme is present in the food, there is no need for baby’s small intestine to produce it herself.
If you can’t source quality raw liver in your area, desiccated liver powder can be used instead.
At Age 10 Months
At the age of 10 months or so, add pureed meats, fruits and vegetables. Introduce one at a time to reduce any chance of a reaction. Best also to avoid high starch veggies like potatoes and sweet potato. These veggies contain very complex starch molecules. They 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 withgrassfed butter.
It is worth the effort! Organic jarred baby food is not only overpriced. It is microwaved, watered down and contains no healthy fats to facilitate absorption.
Consumption of veggies with a bit of healthy fat like butter increases mineral absorption tremendously! You can freeze your homemade baby food in ice cube trays. A quick thaw in a small sauce pan (not the microwave!) makes for a fast and nutritious meal.
Soups made with homemade broth rank as one of the most nutritious foods for babies at this age. The gelatin in the homemade broth is protective against any intestinal bugs. It facilitates digestion too so that baby absorbs as many nutrients as possible.
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. Grains are the hardest foods to digest of all.
Some experts advise that a child pass his/her second birthday before eating these foods. Whatever you decide, it is wise to forgo them until well after the first birthday. Even then, the grains should be properly prepared. This means they are either sprouted, sour leavened or soaked to ensure maximum digestibility. This careful preparation breaks down some of the hard to digest starches, gluten and anti-nutrients 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. In fact, the longer you can delay, 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 parents give a baby at a restaurant is bread from the bread basket.
Babies may love it, but don’t do it!
Resist the temptation to use these foods as a pacifier. Commit to offering only truly nourishing fare at such a young age. The time will come soon enough when your child will have more control over his/her food choices. Wisely use this time of complete control to make sure every calorie 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, enzymes and probiotics has been pasteurized away. It just spikes the blood sugar and increase the risk of obesity.
Juice also kills a 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, a 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. This is acceptable after age 10 months or so.
Still unsure where to start? This video on how to prepare the best first food for baby can help too!
Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist
Sarah Pope has been a Health and Nutrition Educator since 2002. Her work is dedicated to helping families effectively incorporate the principles of ancestral diets within the modern household. She is a sought after lecturer around the world for conferences, summits, and podcasts.
Her work has been covered by major media including USA Today, ABC, NBC, and many others.