Cereal porridge for babies: are they necessary? from when?

The WHO and other scientific bodies, including the Spanish Association of Paediatrics , recommend maintaining exclusive breastfeeding for six months, and from then on, introducing different foods: this is what is called complementary feeding.

In the case of babies who take artificial formula , there is not such a clear consensus in the scientific literature, but it seems sensible to also start complementary feeding around six months, and in any case always wait for the infant to show signs to be prepared.

Although in recent years the Baby-Led-Weaning method is gaining in popularity, many families still start complementary feeding by spoon feeding. Cereal porridge is usually one of the first foods to be introduced, but is it essential that children eat it? What porridge is the most suitable? If I am breastfeeding, how do I do it?

When should cereals be introduced?

Complementary feeding should be introduced around the sixth month of life . Although years ago there was an ordered list of foods to be introduced according to age, current recommendations find no benefit in introducing one food before another.

Thus, rigid guidelines should not be given and each family will introduce different foods based on their tastes and culture. It is recommended, however, to prioritize foods rich in iron and zinc.

When to introduce cereals with gluten?

Recommendations regarding gluten have varied greatly over the years. It is currently recommended to introduce it between four and 12 months, ideally around six months and in small amounts . It is not necessary to introduce gluten-free cereals previously.

Are cereal porridges essential? What alternatives do we have?

Cereals are an important source of carbohydrates and fiber (and, to a lesser extent, proteins of low biological value, minerals, essential fatty acids and vitamins) and are an important part of the diet (both for children and adults). However, cereal porridges are by no means essential or the only way to offer cereals .

For families who decide to start complementary feeding with crushed with a spoon, in addition to the classic industrial porridge, they can prepare milk with oat flakes (the typical porridge or porridge in English), rice or wheat semolina or milk with flour of corn . In addition, bread, pasta or rice, among others, are also cereals and, in the case of feeding with crushed foods, we could add them to the vegetable puree, for example.

I add here that cereals should never be added to the bottle because we could overfeed the infant and promote obesity. From six months they are able to eat from a spoon and in this way they better control their signals of hunger and satiety.

Cereal porridges are not always healthy

The classic “box” cereal porridge, “industrial” in many cases is not beneficial. Although it may seem incredible, some of these porridges contain added sugars, honey or cookies. The recommendation is that infants do not take any added sugar. But even many of the porridges that claim to be “no added sugar” have a high percentage of sugars .

This is due to the fact that the cereals that make up these porridges are usually very crushed, in theory so that babies digest them more easily (which is not at all necessary, since from six months their body is perfectly capable of digesting the “whole” cereals). This hydrolysis or dextrination process converts large carbohydrates (called complex carbohydrates) into much smaller ones , many of which are simple sugars . For this reason, although they do not contain added sugars, many of these preparations have a high sugar content.

To see it, just look at the nutritional information. In the section “carbohydrates, of which sugars”. In hydrolyzed cereals this percentage ranges between 20 and 30%. That is, more than a fifth of what we offer our baby is sugar. And let’s remember that the WHO is firm: zero sugars in complementary feeding .

In addition to sugars being unhealthy , “sweet” porridge can crowd out other healthy foods. Babies have an innate preference for sweet taste . This in the first months of life is an advantage, as it makes them prefer breast milk (which has a sweet taste) and avoid other foods/drinks that are not suitable for them. However, when it comes time for complementary feeding, the sweet taste of hydrolyzed cereals may make them prefer these over other healthy foods that they should also eat, such as fruits or vegetables .

More and more commercial houses are aware of the problem that this entails and there are already several “box porridges” on the market with cereals without hydrolysing or 0% added sugars or produced; in these cases, the sugar content ranges between 1 and 2%, which is the amount of sugar that can be naturally present in cereals.

Can babies eat whole grains?

Of course! They not only can but they must. Whole grains are healthier because they contain all three parts of the grain; the germ and bran (husk) that are removed in refined cereals also contain many nutrients: fiber, folic acid, vitamins and minerals.

In addition, there are studies that conclude that regular consumption of whole grains has health benefits: they reduce cardiovascular risk , the risk of some cancers , the risk of type 2 diabetes and help the digestive system. To know if a porridge is integral we must look at the ingredients. Wholemeal porridge will include wholemeal flour (it must be a high percentage) or whole grain.

How do I introduce cereals if I am breastfeeding?

As we have seen, cereal porridges are not, far from it, essential. So a mother who is breastfeeding should not, in any case, express milk for the sole purpose of preparing a porridge, much less introduce formula milk to do so . In the event that milk is expressed for another reason (for example, she has returned to work and spends a few hours apart from her baby), cereals can be added to breast milk. But they can also be prepared with water or we can add them to vegetable puree or fruit puree.

Cereals and Baby-Led-Weaning

In this case we forget about the porridge. We can offer our baby pieces of different types of bread (wheat, rye, corn…). We can also prepare it on toast (with tomato, oil, avocado…) or in the form of a stick to dip in hummus , for example. We can also prepare homemade pancakes , muffins, cookies or biscuits with different flours. In addition, we can offer them pasta (large macaroni or little bows tend to catch them better at first), rice (something old so they can grab it more easily), couscous, quinoa…

To finish and as a summary, we will conclude that cereal porridges are not essential . Those parents who have opted for a complementary feeding based on crushed food can prepare homemade porridge (milk with oat flakes, with cornmeal, semolina). In the case of choosing commercial preparations, it is important to take those that do not have added or produced sugars, that is, that the cereals are not hydrolyzed. And let’s remember that bread, pasta, rice, quinoa… are also cereals and can be added to porridge or purees.

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