The Best First Food for Baby

Does it HAVE to be baby rice?

Is infant cereal (also known as baby rice) the best first food for baby? Are there alternatives to baby rice that may be a better option?

This page looks at the pros and cons of introducing infant cereal to baby as a first food, reveals some helpful information from other parents… and suggests some alternative foods that may be ideal for leading your baby into the world of solids!

Best first food for baby

Why is baby rice so commonly introduced as baby’s first food?

Well, there are several reasons – the main one being that it is the first food most frequently recommended to parents by pediatricians and medical professionals.

There is also an element of tradition – after all, it was the first food that many of US received as babies and offering baby rice has become established and widely accepted as the ‘norm’ when transitioning infants to solids.

So WHY has infant rice cereal always been considered the best first food for baby?

  • It is relatively bland in taste – some experts say that this makes it more acceptable to babies because – when mixed with breast milk or formula – it tastes familiar to them.
  • You can mix it to a fairly thin texture, which is believed to be ideal for babies making the transition from an all-liquid diet to a more solid one.It provides necessary iron – most baby rice is iron-fortified to boost babies’ levels of this essential dietary element at a time when they become depleted (around 6 months of age).
  • It is believed to be relatively non-allergenic, making it a safer option as a first food.It is said to be very easily digested.
  • It is believed – by some – to help babies sleep through the night by keeping their tummies full for longer.
  • It is gluten free, meaning that it can be given to babies under 6 months of age (please see this page for more information about gluten).

For quite some time, these reasons for introducing baby rice before other foods have not been greatly challenged – indeed, infant cereal is still one of the most popular weaning foods in the developed world.

More recently, however, parents are ‘reading up’ on infant nutrition and questioning commonly held beliefs regarding feeding practices.

With more information available – and parents being able to ‘compare notes’ via the internet – they are more likely to challenge pediatric advice regarding solid feeding issues than ever before.

Furthermore, the previously held notion that anything in a packet marketed for babies is automatically a healthy choice is beginning to fade away… and many parents have doubts over the necessity of those little packs of commercially prepared baby rice.

So let’s take another look at why baby rice is considered the best first food for baby – and what other parents have discovered after introducing infant rice cereal to THEIR little ones…

Baby rice has a bland taste and can be mixed to a thin texture…

When we were small, our parents were often encouraged to begin feeding us solid foods from as early as 6 weeks of age.

Even now, some pediatricians and health professionals are still advocating the introduction of solids from 3-4 months of age, despite the fact that various organizations – including the World Health Organization and UNICEF – recommend that babies receive nothing but formula or breast milk for the first 6 months of life.

If you are introducing solids at 4 to 6 months, then the ‘blandness’ of baby rice – combined with the fact that it can be mixed to a very thin texture – may make it a suitable choice as a first food.

After all, some babies under 6 months of age may not be developmentally ready to deal with much in the way of texture (see Ready for Solids? for more information) – therefore, a particularly runny blend of milk and cereal would be more manageable.

Dad Richie Escovedo found that the ability to adjust the texture of baby rice worked very well for his little one and told us…

With our first child (now 4) we introduced rice cereal as a first food upon the recommendation of our pediatrician. Being new parents, it didn’t really occur to us which food(s) to start with and we were glad to receive guidance. With our second child (7 months) we followed the same pattern and had no problems.

We found that changing the consistency with varying amounts of water changed up the texture enough to get the kids used to the idea of eating more solid foods in addition to a bottle. I think this has helped/is helping with the transition and introduction of other foods.

Mum Joanna Ruscella from Orlando, Florida, agrees, saying…

I loved the baby rice cereal – my children would eat it up and I found that it was a great way to thicken foods and give them a little extra nutrition at the same time. We incorporated it into many of our meals. Instead of eating simply carrots, or meat, etc. I would mix in a little of the cereal with it.

As a matter of fact, it has become a kind of a comfort food for my children. They are now 7 and 5 and when they don’t feel well, or are feeling sad, I make them a bowl of it and it makes them feel better.

However, if you choose to follow recent guidelines to delay the introduction of solids until at least 6 months of age, then baby rice may NOT necessarily be the ideal choice as a first food.

In our experience, by 6 months of age babies are ready to experience some real flavour – blandness is certainly NOT a requirement at this point.

In fact, as we discuss on our page ‘Can My Baby Eat Spicy Food?’ – many babies experience herbs, spices and garlic from a very early age and absolutely adore these stronger flavours!

And, of course, texture should be less of an issue by 6 months of age.

Many babies have lost their gag reflex by now and are capable of managing basic purees at the very least!

Those parents who follow the principles of Baby Led Weaning and allow babies to feed themselves – rather than feeding them from a spoon – may even find their little ones coping wonderfully with actual ‘pieces’ of food.

Infant cereal is iron fortified…

Full term babies are usually born with adequate stores of iron. However, these deplete during the first 6 months of life and medical professionals usually recommend introducing iron-fortified cereal as a way of boosting these stores.

(External link for more information: Diagnosis and Prevention of Iron Deficiency and Iron-Deficiency Anemia in Infants and Young Children)

However, there is some controversy over this advice with regard to breastfed babies, because the iron in breast milk is extremely well absorbed. Some experts say that the iron stores of a breast fed baby are NOT necessarily deficient by 6 months of age and that the introduction of iron fortified cereal can lead to baby absorbing LESS iron from breast milk.

Read more about this issue and baby’s iron requirements here

Neither may iron-fortified cereal be essential for formula-fed babies.

New research has discovered that the addition of very finely ground meat to a baby’s diet is extremely effective in boosting iron levels and may even be better than cereal (please read How to Introduce Meat to Baby for more information).

Indeed, the government website Healthy Canadians now recommends meat as one of the best first foods for baby, as – for some time – has the breastfeeding advocacy group La Leche League.

Baby rice is non-allergenic…?

Or is it?

Whilst any food has the capacity to trigger an allergic reaction in a sensitive individual, baby rice has long been considered one of the foods least likely to do so. This makes it a popular choice for babies younger than 6 months of age, for whom the risk of an allergic reaction to foods is deemed higher.

However, startling new research published in the online edition of Archives of Disease in Childhood has called this claim into question.

A review of 31 infant allergy cases at Sydney’s The Children’s Hospital in Westmead, Australia – which took place over 16 years – found that baby rice triggered a reaction called food protein induced enterocolitis syndrome (FPIES). In fact, rice seemed to cause this disorder in more babies than either soy or cow’s milk, which were previously considered to be the most common causes.

You can read the summary of the published research here

Whilst no changes have been made to recommendations for the introduction of infant rice cereal as a first food, it is certainly worth noting that baby rice may not be as ‘low risk’ in terms of allergenic potential as previously thought.

Baby rice is easy to digest…?

Many babies are introduced to rice cereal with no resulting digestive issues whatsoever.

But this isn’t always the case and some parents do find that baby rice leads to constipation and other discomforts.

Mum Megan King from Pennsylvania was one such parent and told us…

I chose infant rice cereal as the first food for my now 9 month-old daughter. I chose this as the first food on the advice of my pediatrician.

I would not do this again.

My daughter was constipated for 5 days and it was not until I switched her to oatmeal infant cereal that the constipation was relieved. I actually had to mix a little prune juice in with the oatmeal to relieve the constipation.

I have tried to reintroduce rice cereal again in the last few weeks and my daughter still does not tolerate it well. It is more sticky than the oatmeal cereal and tends to make her gag.

With my next child, I will use oatmeal and barley cereal and skip the rice cereal all together.

Kate Burch from Oklahoma had a similar experience…

I introduced rice cereal to my first daughter at my pediatrician’s urging when she was 4 months old.

She had terrible constipation and crying bouts with her tummy making awful noises so we stopped that and tried it again at 7 months to the same reaction. Switched at that point to oatmeal cereal and she was fine.

I never let rice cereal touch my second daughter’s lips!

Of course, digestive problems caused by the introduction of rice cereal may be caused by introducing solid foods before 6 months of age, when baby’s digestive system is still a little immature.

Yet, as Mum Nancy O’Neill points out in her summary of her experience with infant cereal, rice is known for its binding properties…

I chose not to start out with any store-bought baby food at all, especially rice cereals.

Our son was born in Nov. 1995 and already, it was well-known that rice was a binding agent. For years, nutritionists and doctors advised people of all ages that if they had diarrhea or similar problems to use the BRAT diet which consisted of Bananas, Rice, Apples, and Toast.

So to feed infants rice as their first solid food didn’t make any sense at all. It’s purely a marketing scheme from cereal manufacturers.

Instead, I went with vegetables and fruits which I cooked and pureed myself in an ordinary blender.

To simplify things and have ready-available choices, I put the puree in ice cube trays and froze them. It was quite easy to that out one cube and have it ready to eat in minutes. No preservatives, no bland tasting rice and he has turned out to have very healthy eating habits as well as healthy with few colds and flu.

Any time you get processed foods, it’s hard to avoid the extra sugars, salts, and chemicals they need to make them shelf-stable and convenient.

Our opinion?

Two of our children suffered constipation issues after consuming baby rice and we receive countless e-mails from parents who’ve discovered the same thing.

If your little one is prone to constipation then one of the alternatives to baby rice listed at the end of this article may make a far more appropriate first food!

Infant rice cereal helps babies sleep longer…?

This advice is often passed on to parents who are frequently woken at night by a crying baby. But is it really true?

Unfortunately, there is no clear answer to this question and we’ve heard mixed reports from parents.

We certainly wouldn’t recommend adding cereal to baby’s bottle, which is often the advice given to sleep deprived parents by well meaning friends and family. This presents a choking hazard – it can cause baby to consume more calories than he needs – and it can lead to digestive discomfort, as Mum Nikki Maxwell from California discovered…

I gave rice cereal in my eldest daughter’s bottle to her (with extra liquid) because people told me she would sleep better.

It gave her gas and made her belly hurt. It was a bad idea and I did not do that one with my two other children.

After my experience, I decided to read more and talk to my doctor more about when to introduce what kinds of foods. My feeling is that waiting as long as we can to give “food” to babies is a better bet for their digestive tracts.

Neither would we recommend introducing baby rice via the spoon to a baby under 6 months of age, purely on the basis that he is waking at night… it is more likely that he will suffer digestive discomfort as a result and that means even MORE sleepless nights for you both.

However, from 6 months of age the introduction of baby rice may have a positive effect on your baby’s sleeping pattern, although it’s worth noting that many babies naturally begin sleeping for longer periods during the night at this stage.

Mum Sharon Golubchik from Teaneck, New Jersey, certainly felt that rice influenced her son’s sleep…

The first solid that I gave my son was rice cereal, at 6 months old. Eventually I moved him onto other foods as well, but I always made sure to give him rice cereal at dinner time because I once heard that it will help him sleep better through the night.

And from my experience, I saw firsthand how true this is.

He is 11 months old now, and while he eats noodles and bananas and yogurt and lots of other things for dinner, I always make sure that he gets a cup of rice cereal in addition. I’ve even tried other baby cereals (oatmeal, barley), and noticed that the rice cereal simply keeps him stomach full for longer.

Is rice the best first food for baby? Other parents opinions…

From Paul Hambrick…

We have not used rice cereal with our children because we keep our children on a schedule, we breast feed and rice cereal is not healthy for little babies.

By keeping them on a rather strict schedule (as strict as you can be with an infant, I mean come on, is that a relative statement, or what?) our babies metabolism is quickly regulated so that he/she is fed pretty much at the same time he/she gets hungry. Babies cry when they need to be fed, changed or are tired, assuming they’re not sick or in pain.

If you stay on a schedule, it’s much easier to rule out the cause for fussiness. If you just feed them, they’re not hungry… no need to give them rice cereal.

My wife has always had a very good milk supply. We believe that God created babies, and their mother has the ability to feed them, so why mess with that?

In our case, there has been a problem sometimes of too much milk, so my wife pumps and freezes the milk. So on the rare occasion the baby isn’t satisfied with a normal feed, we can thaw out milk and give him/her more. If the baby is still hungry after a normal feed, we don’t assume that we gave him/her the wrong thing, we just give him/her more.

Rice cereal is not healthy for babies, it’s convenient. It keeps the baby “satisfied” longer than regular breast milk, or infant formula because it stays on the stomach longer. Baby sleeps longer because there’s this ‘brick’ in her stomach that her body needs to use more energy to digest, so she sleeps, and we think she’s better off.

Not so, first of all with all the processing, rice cereal is primarily sugar and starch (which gets further broken down by the digestive system into more sugar) and protein, and very little else of nutritious value.

Babies are born with “leaky gut.” It’s just how they are made, as they get older, they’re gut’s integrity becomes less leaky, but as little babies, this ‘rice brick’ that is just sitting in they’re little stomachs is allowing the aforementioned proteins to leak through the gut into the baby’s blood stream. Foreign proteins in the blood stream cause the immune system to react which leads to inflammation. This inflammation leads to all kinds of problems: allergies, and in some extreme cases, auto-immune issues.

Of course, not every baby will react this way, but why take the chance? We don’t want to take the chance, so we only give our babies breast milk until they’re ready for solid foods, and then the first solid we give is usually a mashed banana, or mashed cooked squash, or carrots, etc.

We actually skip any type of cereal all together as part of the stage of introducing solid foods.

From Sara Sprague…

I’m one of the parents that opted not to introduce rice cereal as a food for my child.

Babies lack the digestive enzymes to break down cereals, so it’s essentially vitamin fortified nutritional fluff.

Since cereal sits heavy in an infant’s stomach, it basically takes up room that would better be occupied by breastmilk (or formula) which the infant can actually digest and derive nutritional benefit from.

Additionally, infant cereals can cause anemia in exclusively breastfed babies. So that was my reason for opting to start off with vegetables and fruits instead of grains.

My son did start getting grains later on. At about one year old I would make rice cereal out of whole grain brown rice or rolled oats. In retrospect I would probably wait until 2y next time before introducing grains.

From Michele Samuels, California…

I chose to avoid cereals altogether until my baby had a range of vegetables in his diet.

I did this according to a list of first foods I received from a homeopathic pediatric office. The basis of this way of starting foods is that, rather than filling the baby with empty starches that have been fortified, you give them the nutrients their bodies most need directly from the foods from which they come.

Granted the first food I gave my son was yams, which are sweet and do have some starch, but we quickly moved on to green beans, etc… all were home made and mashed in a baby food mill and no gas producing veggies were introduced until his system was much more mature.

After a few months of just veggies, I also introduced organic baby cereals. As far as the cereals went, I don’t remember if I made a distinction between rice cereal and anything else. His digestion was so good that I never noticed a difference — and I was pretty clear on his schedule, since I potty trained him at 11 months.

It’s not scientific data, but I can tell you that my son eats just about everything now — from meat, poultry, and fish, to dairy and eggs, to all kinds of veggies, both fresh and cooked. Funny thing, one of the last things he learned to like was potatoes!

From Brynn Steimle, M.S….

I have an 8 month old baby, and when we introduced her to solids when she was 6 months old, rice cereal was the first food we gave her.

We started with rice cereal because I had read in many places that a single grain cereal should be the first solid introduced. And rice cereal seemed like a mild cereal to start with.

My baby experienced no constipation or other complications.

She has been on solids for 2 months now and has tried all of the baby food vegetables I could find, some fruits, and other cereals, and rice cereal (along with oatmeal) is still her favorite food. She loves it and eats it voraciously, whereas with other foods, I often have to work to get her to eat a significant amount.

And yes, I would use it as a first food again next time around!

alternatives to baby rice

There are a range of other foods that may make a good alternative to baby rice as a first food. Remember, though, that not all foods are suitable for all babies and you should check with your doctor first, as he is familiar with your baby’s family history.

Ultimately, the choice of the best first food for YOUR baby is yours to make, under the guidance of your pediatrician.

Whilst this article does not provide all of the answers, we hope that it has given you some useful information to help you make the best choice for your child… and to realize that baby rice cereal is not the ONLY first food available to your little one, but is merely one of a range of alternatives.

What Do You Think is the Best First Food For Baby?

Do you have any opinions or experiences about baby rice that you’d like to share? Did you introduce a fruit, veggie or meat to your baby before anything else? Please tell us about it!

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