How Rice Cereal Changed My Life

rice cereal

Do babies really need rice cereal? Is it healthy? Are iron supplements necessary for breastfed babies? Exactly one year ago today I was stressing big time over these questions.

When Bridger was four months old, our pediatrician told us we could start giving him rice cereal.*  I planned to make his baby food, so I asked if I could make his rice cereal too. The pediatrician said no, I needed to use the store-bought iron-fortified cereal because breast milk is low in iron, and after six months of age, breastfed babies need an iron supplement. If I absolutely insisted on making homemade rice cereal, he said I’d need to give him a foul tasting iron supplement that could cause tummy upset.

(Does this tiny, precious four month old baby look like he needs rice cereal?)

Santa baby

Obviously,  this really baffled me. The human race literally would not exist if iron-fortified cereal was necessary, because we simply have not been consuming it for pretty much all of human history. Thus began the research that changed our lives. It went a little something like this:

Find out how babies got iron before rice cereal days:

1) Less birth intervention. Delayed cord clamping is pretty trendy right now and is seeing a comeback, which is a wonderful thing. Basically this means that, after baby is born, you don’t cut the cord right away. You wait until the cord stops pulsing (up to 3 minutes after birth), indicating all the iron-rich blood from the placenta has been transferred to the baby’s body. This gives baby a nice dose of iron to help get them well into their food-eating days (six months of age), when they will start to eat plenty of iron-rich foods. If you want to delay cord clamping, you need to put it in your birth plan, as this is still not standard protocol in many hospitals yet.

A fabulous article on the topic, complete with many references, is available from Science of Mom:

Research has found that delayed cord clamping allows 20 to 40 mL more blood to pulse from the placenta to the newborn, carrying with it an additional 30 to 35 mg of iron [source].  As a result, babies have higher newborn hemoglobin, lower risk of anemia at birth and through 2-3 months, and higher iron status and storage through 6 months of age [source].

2) Natural supplements? Babies used to eat dirt as soon as they were old enough to put things in their mouths. Don’t believe me? Watch the documentary Babies. The African baby is all about chewing on things that have been in the dirt. (Or look at pictures from Bridger in our garden…) And dirt, my friends, contains iron. Could this have been a source of iron supplementation for pre-rice cereal babies? After reading this, I felt OK letting Bridger eat a little (organic) dirt from the garden…

eating rocks

3) High iron first foods. Traditional first foods for babies included things like egg yolks, liver, and meat. You guessed it- all high in real, non-synthetic iron. (Here’s another great article on iron and babyfoods- very helpful.)

So according to my Google PhD in infant nutrition, it appears babies do indeed need iron starting around the six month mark, they just historically got it from life conditions (non-interventions at birth, environment, and first foods) that are very different than those we live in now. Interesting.

The Universe smacks down rice cereal:

1) Babies can’t properly digest grains. As I was researching the necessity of fortified rice cereal, I came across repeated claims that grains should be avoided for the first one to two years of baby’s life. Babies don’t produce the digestive enzyme to break down grains until their first molars appear, which is well after their first birthday, meaning that any grains they consume before then will not be fully digested. Food Renegade explains in Why Ditch the Infant Cereals:

“Undigested grains wreak havoc on your baby’s intestinal lining. It can throw off the balance of bacteria in their gut and lead to lots of complications as they age including: food allergies, behavioral problems, mood issues, and more.

What does this mean? Don’t feed your baby grains (or even highly starchy foods), until all of their first molars have emerged. This means no rice cereals, no Cheerios, no Goldfish, no oatmeal, no infant crackers.”

2) Synthetic iron can be harmful. To add insult to injury, some studies are showing that unnecessary iron supplementation can have adverse effects including lowered IQ, bacterial infections, and stunted growth. There’s a two part series on it here. I don’t know how legit these concerns are, but the last thing I wanted to do was find out on my teeny precious Bridger Boy. (Obviously, if you or your child is low in iron, supplementation can be beneficial.)

3) And rice is…poisonous? As I was learning all of this iron/grain information, the arsenic-in-rice studies hit the news, putting the proverbial nail in the rice cereal iron-fortified coffin. Apparently levels of arsenic were detected in rice that exceeded the allowable limit in drinking water. Some very informed people aren’t worried about this, so chances are I shouldn’t be either, but it still makes me nervous.

Remove head from sand:

You can’t wake a person who is pretending to be asleep.  -Navaho Proverb

Enter, life changing moment.  During my many internet searches involving “is rice cereal necessary” or “is rice cereal healthy,” I came across the works of Dr. Weston A Price, a dentist who traveled all over the world observing isolated tribes of people who ate traditional, non-processed foods and experienced vibrant health. His findings really resonated with me on a very intuitive level- why eat a modern processed diet that clearly contributes to the multitude of modern day ailments everyone suffers from, when there are tried and true traditional foods people have been consuming for generations, all the while experiencing great health?

And so we made the decision to transition our diet to healthy, whole, unprocessed foods even though it often takes (way) more time to actually cook meals, sometimes costs more money, and certainly attracts a lot of weird looks.

What we eat now:

  • Little to no processed foods.
  • Foods that have traditionally been consumed by past generations (as in, great grandparents and before, when processed foods didn’t exist).
  • Meats are 100% grassfed, raised on pasture and supplemented with no grain. (Pork, which is typically always supplemented with grain, is still pasture-raised and the grains are organic.)
  • Chickens (and eggs) are also raised on pasture and supplemented with organic grains, ideally soy-free.
  • Dairy is raw (unpasteurized) from grassfed Jersey cows. Kefir (like yogurt) is made at home daily for lots of healthy probiotics.
  • Fermented cod liver oil and high vitamin butter oil are consumed daily, much to my taste buds’ dismay.
  • Liver consumption is attempted periodically (we’re a work in progress on this one, but liver is ridiculously healthy, so we’ll keep trying).
  • Veggies are organic, as they used to be and should still be.
  • Grains are either soaked or sprouted before consumption and are eaten in moderation.

In the new year I plan to increase our intake of fermented veggies (not as awful as it sounds- think sauerkraut- also a great source of probiotics).

Keeping It Real:

We do occasionally eat processed foods, usually at other people’s houses or restaurants, but sometimes even at our own house. I’d love to never eat them, but we’re just not there yet, and sometimes I want to pick up a Whole Foods pizza (made with enriched flour- bleck) and have a quick meal. However, I am starting to draw the line, even when in public.

Also, I gave Bridger iron-fortified oatmeal cereal for a couple of weeks when he was five months old, and officially started him on other solids like bananas and avocados that same month. Knowing what I know now, I’d skip cereal altogether, delay other foods until six months, and start him on traditional first foods, but I just didn’t know back then.

Baby Led Weaning

All in all, though, I’m pleased with our diet these days. It takes a lot more effort to eat the way we eat now, and it was a pretty steep learning curve, but now that we’ve adjusted, we love it. I feel good knowing I’m nourishing Bridger’s little body with the healthy foods humans are meant to consume, and not the chemical-laden “food” products widely accepted by our society.

– Ashley

 *The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no solids until six months of age, and I tend to agree. Prior to six months of age, babies have a “leaky” gut, meaning that nutrients pass straight through their digestive systems into their bloodstream. This is great when only breast milk is being consumed. However, when solid foods are being eaten, proteins that are not digested can pass into the bloodstream, eliciting an inflammatory response that can possibly lead to an increased rate of food allergies and other non-desirable things. Thus, it is important to wait until the gut is sealed- around six months of age for most- before introducing solid foods. When baby can sit up, reach for and show interest in table food, develops the pincer grasp, and loses the tongue thrust reflex, these are excellent signs that it is safe to start solid foods.

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  1. Thanks for your story! I always cheer when another baby gets to benefit from this knowledge. This is a story I can definitely share with others who are open – especially your comment at the end about the AAP recommendation.

  2. Roberta Eldridge says:

    Thank you for your informative and enjoyable article. We have learned the same things, and are working on transitioning to eating all natural foods as well. Blessings!

  3. What an incredibly well written, and insightful post! Your family will surely reap the nutritional benefits of your diet for years to come. Little Bridger is adorable too. I wish I could go back and start all over with my son (now 20) and feed him better. Fortunately, I dropped processed foods 10 years ago so he’s at least entering his adulthood with a good nutritional foundation.

  4. What a fabulous post. We feel the exact same way, but I have a hard time putting it into words when questioned by others. I’ll have to read this a few times through as you worded it in a way so simple to understand. Thank you!

  5. Paula Schaub says:

    Ashley – thank you for writing such a heart felt, honest story. I have reposted to fb with a little message that if you are having a baby or have a small one, to please read this!!! You wrote in simple to understand terms not only about rice cereal, but all the things you learned in your research about it, that changed the way you are eating. It takes a lot of courage to go up against this stuff, people just think we are ‘nuts’ because we are foodies. I appreciate your honesty and simple terms in which you write. Thank you again. Paula

  6. great article, ashley.
    it was insighful, but also depressing. you’ve got me feeling like a failed parent already, and they aren’t even two. we fed the twins rice and grain cereal for quite a while; now i’m worried they are going to be allergy-ridden kids with behavioral problems! also, the delaying of cord-clamping…wish we’d have done that. very cool. i hadn’t heard of it and, of course, that would never have occured to me.
    glad there are people like you to do the legwork and get the info out there for the unmotivated like me.
    when does the book come out!?!
    (ps- did the christmas party hosts know you were taking pictures of their food in order to later show your disapproval?) 🙂

  7. Beautiful story of your path to wisdom and health. Worth noting, Canadian pediatricians recommend meat as first solid food:

  8. Thanks everyone for your kind comments. Brandon, you described exactly how I feel as I learn more and more about the state and quality of our food/food system- it’s depressing! The thing I always remember in regards to past food decisions is that poor food choices don’t cause any problems overnight- it takes eating the bad stuff for a long period of time before it all starts to add up. Add the human body’s ability to heal, and things don’t seem so dire. Don’t worry about past mistakes, all you can do it make better choices in the future. 🙂

    Interesting that Canada recommends meat as a first food for babies… Good for them!

    Oh, and the crackers were my mother-in-law’s. I showed them to her because we had to discuss how those are not acceptible foods for my baby to eat when he’s at her house- and she completely agreed!

  9. Ashley,

    The lies we’re told “oh, give him rice cereal and he’ll sleep through the night”. Luckily I knew that wasn’t true. Right now my exclusively breastfed 4 month old can sleep 7 hour stretches.

    I may have to fire my pediatrician because he asked me when I started rice cereal with my 1st and when I said I never did, he was astonished. I started with Baby Led Weaning with my 1st and was pleased with the results. He was able to explore food on his own and I didn’t have to shove a spoon in his face very often. He was able to self feed by hand, and then by utensil, much earlier than typical. Ironically, because he was predominantly breastfed, I had to work more with him on drinking out of a cup. No worries though!

    • We just fired our pediatrician too. I just can’t feel confident in someone’s recommendations when they clearly have no clue about something as basic as nutrition.

  10. I’d love to see a copy of your weekly menu.


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