Is cereal necessary?

Healthy advice on baby's first solids

Marnie Jensen’s daughter Emma was about 5½ months old when she started grabbing food off her parents’ plates and intently watching them eat.

“So,” says Jensen, “I thought she was probably ready to start on solids.” Jensen assumed that Emma’s first food should be the prepared infant cereals she’d used with her first baby. But when Jensen gave her a spoonful of the stuff, Emma gagged and started to retch. “After a try or two, she wouldn’t even open her mouth.”

Many parents of older babies starting solid foods describe similar reactions and wonder: Is it essential that baby’s first solid food be a prepared, iron-fortified infant cereal? No, says Montreal paediatrician Valerie Marchand, pointing out that the new guidelines from the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) do not specifically recommend starting with cereals, as the old ones did.

“That’s because when babies started solid foods at four months, their digestive systems could really only handle these processed cereals. But at six months [the age the CPS now recommends for the introduction of solids], a baby is ready to digest other foods that are high in iron, such as meats. So if the baby is willing to eat meat, then that would be fine as a first food at this age.”

Marchand explains that a baby’s need for iron begins to increase at six months, and the iron from other sources, such as vegetables, is not well absorbed. “The iron in the iron-fortified cereal is actually not well absorbed either,” she adds, “but there is a large amount, so the baby gets enough.”  The iron in breastmilk, while the quantity is lower, is very well absorbed.

Jensen gave up on trying cereal after Emma’s strong reaction. She offered mashed banana, but that didn’t interest her daughter either, so she stopped offering solids for a week or so.

“Then, one day, I was eating a banana and I could see Emma was getting annoyed that I wasn’t sharing, so I offered her the banana and she happily chewed it up and ate it,” Jensen says. (She was watching Emma closely so the risk of choking was low — but don’t leave your baby alone to eat or let her take large chunks of banana.)

Jensen never bothered with cereal again. “I fed Emma finger foods — pieces of soft foods like avocado and sweet potato. As she began eating more, I found it easiest to just give her slightly modified versions of what we were eating. Finger foods can be messy, but she never did want to be fed — she wanted to do it herself.”

While some babies will react the way Emma did, Marchand adds that most parents still start with infant cereals.

“Parents today are aware of the importance of nutrition, and they are concerned that their babies are getting enough iron,” she says. It’s helpful to know, though, that there are alternatives for those babies who are less than enthusiastic.

Homemade meat for baby
Puréed baby-food meat is available in little jars, but you can easily make your own. Cook the meat until it is soft — in a slow cooker or simmered in broth. You can then scrape a small amount with a knife to create a single serving, or run the whole batch (with some of the liquid) through a food processor. Separate into single servings and freeze for later use.

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