Baby Cereal 101: a comprehensive guide for new parents

The world of baby cereals can be confusing. In this blog post two Registered Dietitians (and moms) break down almost everything you need to know about baby cereal.
a divided baby plate with sweet potato puree, raspberries, and infant cereal topped with hemp hearts

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If you asked your mom about baby cereal, she likely wouldn’t even bat an eye – a generation ago it was simply the default first food for babies!

That was before the internet hit the world and anyone with an opinion could post any “information” they wanted to share. 

Nowadays we need to sift through titles like ‘baby cereal is poison’ and ‘infant cereal: the ideal first food for babies.’  Which one is right? 

We’re hoping that this little part of the internet where we share all the juicy things you need to know about baby cereal leaves you feeling confident and empowered. As Dietitians, our goal in writing this post is to provide you with the education you need about these cereals to make an informed choice about when and what cereals you’d like to feed your baby.

Table of Contents

When Was Baby Cereal Invented?

In the late 1920s, Helen McKay conducted studies on young children and noticed a slight decline in iron stores from birth to 2 months, no decrease from 2 to 6 months, and then another drop from 6 months through to the second year. Before this time, the condition of iron-deficiency anemia, as we now know it, was defined but a cause hadn’t been found. This study helped to link the nutritional intake of iron to anemia.

During this decade, it was common to wait until a child was 1 before introducing solid foods. First up was a sieved vegetable soup, potatoes at 18 months and then other veggies at 24 months.

When the importance of iron was discovered, they knew they needed to start feeding baby solids a lot sooner. By 1935 it was common to introduce solids between 5 and 6 months of age.

At the same time, iron fortified infant cereal was invented by 3 Canadian Doctors at the Toronto Hospital for Sick Kids and was sold under the brand name Pablum. If you’re a millennial, maybe you’ve heard your parent or grandparent speak of this mystical and magical Pablum! The powdered infant cereal could be made into a thin soup and fed to babies at an early age. At this time, Pablum contained several added vitamins and minerals, including iron. Its invention was heralded as a public health success and its widespread use has been attributed with decreasing the rates of nutritional deficiencies in infants and toddlers! Side note: we think it’s so cool when food technology can help with treating nutrition deficiencies, right?!

The excitement of introducing solid foods to babies took hold and people started to feed their babies at younger and younger ages. In Minnesota in the 1960s, it’s estimated that almost 80% of babies were already being fed complementary foods by 1 month of age!

What kind of food could a baby of 1 month old possibly ingest? Pablum, of course! And thus, despite more recent delays in introducing solids to babies at 4-6 months: an age when babies would be able to handle a thicker texture, infant cereal became firmly established as THE first food for baby. This tradition continued until quite recently.

Recommendations have been revised to include ALL food sources that are good sources of iron.

When people heard that meat was now recommended as a first food, some thought this automatically meant that infant cereal was no longer recommended AT ALL. This wasn’t true, it’s still included in a parent’s tool box of foods that are high in iron.

Here are the current recommendations from several organizations about which foods to feed baby. You’ll notice that they all include iron-fortified infant cereal as one of the options:

Why Start With Baby Cereal? Why Give Baby Rice Cereal?

Baby cereal (when fortified) is a convenient and high source of iron – a critical nutrient for babies when they start solids! It’s also often readily accepted by babies. 

Rice cereal was traditionally used to make baby cereal, presumably because it’s not very allergenic. However, here at Happy Healthy Eaters, we actually recommend rotating through different types of grains when buying baby cereal as rice based baby foods may contain arsenic. If there’s arsenic in the soil where rice is grown, it will end up in the grain. 

Baby in high chair being offered a spoonful of baby cereal.

When Can a Baby Start Having Baby Cereal?

Once your baby is showing signs that they’re developmentally ready for solids (somewhere between 4 and 6 months old), they can start to enjoy puréed textures, including iron-fortified infant cereal. If you’re really struggling about the best time to start solids, consider deepening your knowledge with our Start Solids Confidently e-course. 

Is There a Best Baby Cereal to Start With?

Is there a cereal for babies at four months or a cereal for babies at six months? Not in particular but you’ll want to follow these two steps when shopping for a baby cereal: 

First, look for a brand that’s iron-fortified as that’s the main nutritional benefit to feeding your baby infant cereal! In Canada all the baby cereals are iron-fortified but we’ve learned that in places such as Europe, you need to check the labels. 

Secondly, if your baby hasn’t been introduced to cow’s milk yet, you’ll want to find a cereal that doesn’t contain “skim milk powder” in the ingredient list. 

What’s the Best Brand of Baby Cereal?

All the brands that we’ve seen and tried with our own children are very comparable. As such, there isn’t one “best” brand out there! Again, you’ll want to check that it’s iron-fortified.

You’ll likely notice that many of the brands in the baby food aisle will boast that their product is made with organic ingredients. While there certainly isn’t anything wrong with organic foods, they also aren’t necessary. Conventionally grown foods are just as safe for your little one! Buy whichever one works with your budget. 

Suggested reading: Should I Buy Organic Foods for My Baby

There also isn’t a best baby cereal for breastfed babies or a best baby cereal to mix with formula. Some varieties will say, “add water.” You could also choose to add pumped milk or formula to concentrate the nutrients further. 

Why Do Some Baby Cereals Not Have Iron?

We don’t know! We’d love to have a chat with those companies! Honestly, we feel the iron boost is the main reason to purchase baby cereals. 

What’s With the Baby Cereal Stages?

Several baby food manufacturers label their products with “ages and stages.” Unfortunately, these stage categories aren’t actually standardized. The intent is likely to guide parents to start with minimal ingredients and then later stages typically contain multiple ingredients. 

But, when it comes to infant cereal the texture is typically the same: smooth and homogenous. For this reason we advise that you ignore the stages and choose a cereal that works for you and your baby. Do keep in mind that some products with flavours like mango or banana may add sugar to the final product. It’s pretty easy to purchase a basic cereal and add in frozen mango or a mashed banana; plus, it would provide a change in texture – something babies need to progress their eating skills!

How Do I Make Baby Cereal?

It’s so easy! All you’ll do is pour a small amount of powder into a bowl and then add a little bit of liquid (pumped milk, prepared formula, or water, depending on the cereal and what you choose to use). 

If your baby is just starting out on solid foods, then you’ll want to make a thinner “soupier” purée. As your baby gets better at eating, you can start to make it thicker. 

a top down view of someone preparing a bowl of baby cereal

Can I Make My Own Baby Cereal?

While we’re big fans of preparing your own baby food, which we teach you extensively how to do in our e-course Start Solids Confidently, this is one food that we’d caution against making yourself. 

Again, the main reason for offering babies infant cereal is for that iron boost, which you wouldn’t be getting if you simply made a bowl of oatmeal! 

Are There Any Dangers of Baby Cereal?

The main “danger” we can think of is more of a cautionary note. Since baby cereal is very convenient and babies tend to accept it fairly well, it can be easy to over rely on it. You don’t want to fall into the trap of feeding it so often that your baby isn’t exposed to other flavours and textures, which are important for their development!

The second note of caution centres around the arsenic issue in rice-based baby cereal. If there’s arsenic in the soil where rice is grown, it will end up in the grain. A lot of other baby products are often also made with rice (puffs, rusks, etc.). The dose makes the poison – if baby is eating a lot of rice-based foods (and really, they’d have to be eating quite a bit), they may end up consuming too much arsenic which could be problematic for their health.

As such, we recommend rotating through different types of grains, such as wheat, barley, quinoa, wheat, etc. when buying baby cereal.

Lastly, infant cereal doesn’t contain other key nutrients like fat, zinc or B vitamins which are important for your baby. This is why ensuring cereal is a complementary food along with other foods is so important. 

Can Baby Cereal Cause…

When your baby starts on solids, their pooping habits are going to change! You might be wondering if the foods you’re feeding your baby are specifically causing certain issues to develop. Overall it takes time for the human body to adjust to eating foods it’s not used to. 

There isn’t very much evidence to support that baby cereal formally causes and exacerbates diarrhea, constipation, gas, or reflux. It’s really going to vary from baby to baby. One thing to keep in mind is that for a population of babies, the iron in infant cereal can be constipating. If you notice this, dial back on infant cereal or use these strategies to support your constipated baby. 

Will Baby Cereal Help My Baby Sleep?

What every parent would give to find an easy way to get babies to sleep longer! Adding cereal to a baby’s bottle doesn’t do it, though. This study involving 106 infants compared a group of babies who were given 1 tablespoon of cereal for every ounce in their bedtime bottle and a group of babies who didn’t get the cereal added to their bottle. Parents then recorded how long their babies slept. There were no differences in duration of sleep between the two groups! 

For a more comprehensive take on the topic, we joined up with Jessica Painter from Sleepy Bunny Sleep Consulting to tackle the question of whether starting solids will help your baby sleep longer

Can I Put Baby Cereal in a Bottle?

Adding cereal to a baby’s bottle can actually result in harm. The thickened texture poses a higher risk for aspiration: the medical term for breathing in foreign material. Babies are also primed to consume a specific volume of food. Infant formula is designed to mimic the concentration of calories found in breastmilk. Adding cereal to either breastmilk or formula may override a baby’s natural ability to regulate how many calories they take in. 

NOTE: there are certain medical indications for thickening a baby’s feed. Please follow the advice of your pediatrician. 

Is Baby Cereal Full of Sugar?

A package of baby cereal contains NO SUGAR. Certainly in Canada anyway, baby cereals do not contain “free” or “added sugars.” However, you may notice that some cereals especially those with skim milk powder or that say “some powdered mango” will contain a few grams of sugar. These sugars are naturally occurring from the milk or the fruit. 

It can be hard to sift through nutrition labels, especially when you’re rushed during those grocery hauls, but do your best. 

Suggested reading: Babies, Sweets, and Sugar: the complete 411!

What if I Don’t Want to Use Baby Cereal?

No worries. There are not many absolutes when feeding your baby but one of them is that it’s going to be important to offer other iron rich foods at each eating opportunity. We just don’t want you to make this choice out of fear–there are some slimy parts of the internet that lead people to innocently believe that infant cereals are “bad” or “toxic” but that’s simply not the case. Many families make do without them, and that’s totally cool.

Have Fun with Infant Cereal

Offering your baby a basic cereal might get a little boring. To elevate the taste and texture consider adding other ingredients to it; plus, the final cereal will be a lot more nutrient dense. Some ideas:

  • Ground flax seed
  • Almond flour
  • Peanut butter
  • Mushed prunes or other fruit
  • Mashed cooked egg yolk
  • Coconut flakes
  • Red lentil puree
a variety of ingredients you can add to infant cereal to add different nutritional components, depending on what your baby needs.

Additionally, we’ve found that using infant oat or wheat cereal in baking works like a charm. Don’t believe us, give these recipes a try:

If you got through to the end of the article, consider yourself a pseudo-expert in baby cereal! We hope you enjoyed unpacking the history of iron-fortified infant cereal and can rest easy knowing it’s actually a pretty neat contribution to the baby food space. Tell us in the comments, do you offer your baby infant cereal? If so, how?

More Articles Your Family Will Love

We know that starting your baby on solids can feel overwhelming and you may have other worries such as…

  • I’m afraid my baby will choke!
  • I’m afraid my baby won’t be getting enough of the right nutrients!
  • I’m afraid my baby will have an allergic reaction!
  • I’m afraid my baby is not eating enough… too much!
  • I’m afraid my baby will be a picky eater!

We’ve created a FREE guide for you to address these fears and most of all, help you work through them! Just enter your email below and you’ll get the guide sent to your inbox.

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jess and nita, registered dietitians
Meet Jess and Nita

Hi! We’re both Dietitians & boy mamas! We’re here to help you confidently raise kids who will grow up to be lifelong Happy Healthy Eaters. Dig into our site for kid-tested recipes & feeding tips. 

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