Starting Solids - Why I Don't Recommend Baby Rice
The phase of starting babies on solid food is currently one of hot debate with conflicting information. This is representative of the current climate of change in nutrition globally. The aim of this blog post is to shed some light on this, look at our current guidelines compared to other research and also show why I am strongly opposed to starting babies off on baby rice or any other variation of infant cereal.
Up until around six months of age, babies obtain all the nutrients they require from breast milk or formula. Just as a side note here for those that do not know my previous challenges with breastfeeding you can read this here. Breast milk has low amounts of iron – when you look at the typical composition it is virtually none. However, babies are born with enough iron stores to last through to six months of age. Formula generally has a bit more iron than breast milk. This is to compensate for the decreased absorption rate (compared to that of breast milk). So it is not what we call 'high' in iron.
Our current World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines recommend exclusive breastfeeding/formula feeding until around this six month mark. This is something I also advocate for. Here is where the confusion can often start as in New Zealand, some health care providers recommend from four months. The research is clear that starting before four months is too early. While it is safe to start at four months, in my expert experience, the percentage of babies physically ready to start solids at this age is very small. And no, starting solids is not something that may help babies start to sleep through the night – if anything it may contribute to some waking up as their digestive system is learning to adapt to this. This is more so if they are not ready and/or are given baby rice which will add to digestive discomfort.
The low drop off in iron stores at six months has previously been the driving reason for the recommendations to start babies off on an iron fortified baby rice cereal. While, yes, low iron is a concern for infants, through providing nutrient dense baby food (from real food) this can be overcome without having to use a heavily processed product which babies gastrointestinal tracts are not ready for and does nothing for the development of positive food preferences.
It takes two years for a babies GI tract (gastrointestinal tract) to be fully mature. Over this period babies and children will be physically adjusting to different foods. Specifically, in order for the body to digest grains it uses an enzyme called amylase (this is responsible for splitting the starches present in grains). At around six months of age babies start to produce small amounts of salivary amylase but pancreatic amylase which is required to fully break down grains, is not produced in full until about the age of 10-12 months when the molar teeth are fully developed (Edwards & Parrett, 2002, British Journal of Nutrition).
Grains which are not fully digested can really impact on a babies GI tract. In particular the lining of the intestine can be affected, upsetting the delicate balance of bacteria which can decrease immunity and also decrease the body’s ability to absorb key nutrients. This can also result in digestive cramping, bloating, discomfit and overall irritability. There is some research to suggest that the introduction of grains may play a role in the development of certain food allergies and in tolerances as well. There will be variation between infants in their ability to digest grains especially as the small amount of salivary amylase will partially break down the glucose molecule bonds - this makes it tricky as parents to determine just how much your baby is being affected by grains.
In addition to the digestive discomfort, grains of any kind, especially those highly processed, require the production of insulin in order for the carbohydrate to be taken up by the cells. Excessive amounts of insulin production long term can affect metabolism, blood sugar regulation, increase the risk of type two diabetes and weight management difficulties. New research has been emerging over the last few years on this response in adults, including from my colleges and PhD supervisor Grant Scholfield. While further research is required to understand the long-term implications of the impact of excessive insulin production in infants, the basis of a optimal diet is formed from good vegetable, protein and fat intake - starting babies off on this is paramount.
Lack of Nutrients
Unlike vegetables and meat, baby cereals lack in overall nutrients. They provide high energy but not the vitamins and minerals that babies require. In particular vitamin A, folate, zinc, calcium are not provided in baby cereals. For example 1 tablespoon of carrots give enough Vitamin A for the whole day for a baby 6-10 months old (WHO). Regardless of if you do start with baby rice, it is crucial to introduce nutrient dense food sources (vegetables, meat/meat alternative sources and fat). Given babies often do not consume huge amounts of food over the first few months, starting off with these foods will ensure that they are getting the key nutrients they require.
Habit and Preparation
Habit and practicing the preparation of meals are key to children eating well long term. Vegetables and protein/meat sources in particular are something that many parents struggle getting into little ones. I see this time and time again. Starting children off on these food sources can play a key role in saving these battles, it is a lot harder adjusting to their taste when babies have had other foods, especially those that are processed. I can promise you that children (or adults) do not struggle to eat bread, pasta, rice, crackers or other versions of grains!! In addition the preparation involved is important for parents to get used to – and trying to use as much of the family meals as possible and adapt them to babies makes life significantly easier! I am not a chef but have been repeatedly asked for family friendly recipes in this regard! You can see my full range of cook books, including my Baby and Toddler Cookbook here.
So what do you start babies off on?
Interestingly enough the WHO and UNICEF both recommend “introduction of nutritionally-adequate and safe complementary (solid) foods at 6 months together with continued breastfeeding up to 2 years of age or beyond”.
In the WHO Complementary Feeding Guide the recommendations are to start babies off on foods which are:
*Rich in nutrients and energy
*Clean and safe
*Easy to prepare from family meals
What is key here is that, there is no mention of baby rice at all – the only suggestion is to start with a stable food in your particular country of origin.
I would recommend starting with a vegetable such as pumpkin or butternut pumpkin - both have a lot of natural flavour and are easy on the GI tract. Once babies have adjusted to this, quickly (within 2-3 weeks into the starting solids journey depending on development) adding a form of meat such as steak or chicken, or even the meat stock into the puree this is to ensure babies are getting a high source of iron, fat and vitamin B12. You can check out my Butternut Pumpkin Puree here.
Premade Baby Food
I do recommend making your food at home, I know it takes time but a lot of bought baby food just does not compare nutritionally. Always check the back of the label, many contain sugar and/or rice even if it says ‘lamb and peas’ on the front. I have really helpful hints on how to make baby food easy in my blog here and equipment that will honestly save you time!
Since first writing this blog and subsequently my best selling book, The Nourished Baby, I have also created my own food brand - Dr Julie's Kitchen. I know full well the day in and day out challenges of managing the family food, including baby food. We can do better (from a commercial perspective) and I wanted to be part of be part of this change. This was way despite several baby food companies offering to pay me to endorse their products I never did! In 2023, about two years into the creation of DJK, I launched my very own Baby Porridge with Pumpkin Mix. This 'porridge' is totally grain-free, allergen-free, has a plant based source of iron, and is high in fat and....best of all has freeze dried pumpkin.
This is safe for babies to have right from the start and I hope that eventually we will have this mix more accessible in supermarkets world wide!
Starting solids is a journey and right now it can be tricky to know if what you are doing is 'right' especially with conflicting information out there and a food industry which is heavily influenced by global brands. My best selling book The Nourished Baby provides the ultimate step-by-step guide to starting solids (including a whole chapter on WHAT to start on!). In addition I do a special starting solids consultations and a number of events (both in person and virtually).
I strongly believe we can change the face of health for the next generation and starting solids is....where it starts!
Other Helpful Links and Recipes:
Other Helpful Resources
xx Dr Julie