Most pediatricians won't tell you that the best first foods to start your baby on are real, nutrient dense, whole foods. Most pediatricians won't tell you that spoon feeding for extended periods of time is unnatural and takes away your babies autonomy with food. Most pediatricians won't tell you that offering your baby only purees for extended periods of time can affect your baby's development of oral motor skills. They also won't tell you that rice cereal is a synthetic (made in a lab) food that would be hard on your little one's immature gut.
Nothing grinds my gears more than nutritional recommendations for babies that suggest iron-fortified rice cereal and purees as the gold standard for babies first food. First time mothers (and all mothers alike, really) are looking to their pediatricians for advice on when to start and what to give their babies as a first food.
Most pediatricians recommend starting solids around 4-6 months of age and way too many recommend baby cereal as a first food.
Rice cereal has been long known for filling up tummies to encourage babies to sleep through the night and pediatricians often encourage them for their benefit of having added iron (along with other vitamins and minerals). One fact rings true; that growing brains and bodies need rich sources of iron. However, I beg to differ that rice cereal is the best source of this key nutrient.
It really doesn't take much investigation to understand why rice cereal is a poor choice for a first food to introduce to an immature and developing gut.
Why Rice Cereal is a Poor Choice
- Difficult on babies immature gut:
The first ingredient is usually some sort of whole-wheat or white rice flour which has been highly processed (for that "instant ready" option). This highly processed flour (white or wheat) is usually unrecognizable to a babies digestive system and if it contains the gluten protein, it is inflammatory by nature within the gut.
- Low nutritional value:
Since rice cereal is naturally lacking in the nutrition department, manufacturers add synthetic (made in a lab) vitamins back into it to boost the nutritional value from a marketing standpoint.
- Synthetic additives:
Soy lechtin is an ingredient in many popular brands on the market and introducing soy to a baby so early on in life can cause allergies and damage the gut. The other vitamins and minerals are synthetic and more difficult for baby to absorb than if they were to obtain it from real, whole foods.
- Rice products manufactured in the US have been crop dusted with the herbicide Roundup:
Its no secret that glyphosate, a known carcinogen and key ingredient in the herbicide Roundup, is being used widespread on wheat crops in the US. Roundup has been known to significantly damage gut lining, increase permeability of the intestinal wall and disrupt the beneficial bacteria balance in the gut. In my opinion, this would render any non GMO or non-organic rice cereal brands unsafe to offer to a baby.
- Bland and Textureless:
Since babies palates need to be exposed to many different types of textures and flavors, the bland nature and non-existent texture of rice cereal sets off a red light in my head. If the baby is getting mostly rice cereal and then offered something with a little flavor (even something like peaches), it would be completely alarming to their taste buds. A bland diet of mostly baby cereal can easily lead to rejection of a wide variety of flavors in the future (aka picky eating and limited diet.)
Let's talk a bit about baby purees. For the most part, I think they are usually safe and not harmful to baby, especially if you're buying an organic brand. After all, they are really just pureed fruits and vegetables. I do think they are a good way to introduce baby to a new and unfamiliar taste. However, my problem is with prolonged and exclusive feeding of purees (longer than 2-3 weeks) and I find it to be quite common. Prolonged puree feeding can cause long term feeding issues.
Why Purees Aren't Great for Baby
- Promote long term spoon-feeding:
Just like all humans, babies like to be in control of what is going into their mouths. (Would you ever allow someone to place an unkown flavor/texture into your mouth?!) They want to be the ones to decide if they like it or not and be able to expel it if the taste or texture does not agree with them. Spoon feeding is great in many instances, especially if baby needs your help or when they are first beginning to use utensils. But long term and persistent spoon feeding, after the age of 1, diminishes the control the child has over his/her feeding experiences and also limits their ability to learn how to manage utensils on their own.
- Limit the types of textures baby is exposed to:
If you have read my article about how to avoid picky eating, you know I recommend all different types of textures during the first 2 years of life including finely chopped, fork mashed, soft table foods, meltable solids (crackers), crispy foods, mixed textures (more than one food texture mixed together), difficulty chewy foods. Feeding mostly purees for an extended period of time (longer than a few weeks) only offers baby one type of texture and this can potentially cause food rejections, picky eating and limited diet in the future.
- Can cause delayed oral motor skills:
Purees provide little to no propriocpetive feedback to the mouth. Proprioception is simply how we use receptors in our body to determine where we are in space (in this case, where the food is within their mouth). Different textures provide a range of propriopceptive feedback to the mouth. This simply means depending on how hard or soft a food is, baby can feel the texture of the food on their teeth, gums and with their tongue in order to determine 1) where it is in their mouth 2) what it feels like 3) what to do with it in order to mash it up and swallow it.
Can you take a minute to think about how eating something like an apple provides different feedback to the mouth than pureed spinach? Purees lack any real propriocpetive information and are typically taken in as a bolus on a spoon and then swallowed. The problem with this is that babies aren't learning how to chew and manipulate food. I will even go as far as to say that babies who are spoon fed purees too long often have little to no awareness of the components of their mouths due to lack of sensory information provided through their diet. These are the kids we often seen in the clinic for feeding issues.
- Low in calories:
Rapidly growing brains need a large amount of healthy fats and protein to thrive. That's why human breast milk (from a healthy mother) has about 50-60% of its energy as fat. Pureed fruits and vegetables are low in calories and won't provide adequate amounts of protein and fat.
Don't worry mamas, I want to help you find some great sources of nutrition for your baby and also give them opportunities to learn how to develop healthy oral motor (and utensil) skills along the way! Instead purees and rice cereal, I suggest introducing real, nutrient-dense whole foods, one at a time, while monitoring closely for any allergic reactions. I suggest offering these foods in a natural, family-style setting, with other role models surrounding the child for support and learning.
I am working on the follow up piece entitled - 9 Nutrient Dense Foods for Babies First Foods and How to Introduce them BLW Style. Comment below if you will find this helpful!