Baby cereal as the first food is by far the most common practice here in the United States, but it is by no means the only starting point. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that for healthy babies there is no medical research that suggests that starting baby cereal is advantageous over other common first food choices.
Why Baby Cereal Is a Popular Choice for a First Food
To get to the bottom of your question it might be helpful if we take a glimpse of first foods throughout history. For centuries, the norm was to breastfeed for a year or longer and introduce first foods that reflected the foods of the area later in the first year of life. Those foods tended to be fruits, veggies, whole grains, and meats. However, the past two generations of parents shifted the norm to bottle feeding formula and introducing baby cereal to newborns.
Part of the reason infant cereal became a part of a baby's diet had to do with the quality of the formula. In those days, formula was not the same quality that it is today, and cereal seemed to help the formula stay in the baby's stomach. We now know that introducing cereals before 3 months of age puts babies at risk for health problems.
So the effect of the past two generations has influenced feeding practices that go on today. Now there certainly are reasons why baby cereal is a logical choice for first food; it's generally easy to digest, iron-fortified which most babies need; and is considered to be a low-allergen food (particularly rice cereal).
The Alternatives to Baby Cereal as a First Food
Some, such as the La Leche League, advocate that fruits, vegetables, and meats are a great option for first foods. The La Leche League (LLL) notes that breastmilk is primarily carbohydrates (as is cereal) and fruits, veggies, and meats expand the nutrients that babies get.
The LLL provides this first food timeline beginning at 6 months of age:
- Ripe banana, avocado, yam, or sweet potato (6 months)
- Whole-grain breads and cereals as opposed to baby cereal, (avoiding wheat and corn until 9-12 months)
- Fresh fruit (delaying citrus until 9-12 months)
- Dairy products at 9 months with cow's milk until after a year
Should Vegetables Be Offered Before Fruits
Perhaps you've heard that if you offer sweet fruits before vegetables, your baby will develop a "sweet tooth." Again, no medical research supports that. Further, consider breastfed babies. Breastmilk, the basis for their diet, is very sweet to begin with. So you really do not need to fret over whether to start with fruits or vegetables. Just follow sound advice on starting solids, consult your pediatrician before you begin, and you and your baby will embrace a whole new world.
Starting Solid Foods. Copyright © 2008 American Academy of Pediatrics.
The La Leche League. The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. 6th Edition. 1997.
Norris JM, Barriga K, Klingensmith G, Hoffman M, Eisenbarth GS, Erlich HA, Rewers M. Timing of initial cereal exposure in infancy and risk of islet autoimmunity. JAMA. 2003 Oct 1; 290(13): 1713-20.
La Leche League. Introducing Complementary FoodsLEAVEN, Vol. 35 No. 6, December 1999-January 2000, p. 130.