When it comes to what to feed your baby, and when, there are plenty of opinions out there. Of course, most parents stick to the newborn to 1-year-old feeding guidelines set forth by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). However, parents with concerns about some of the suggested foods may wonder: do I have to feed my baby cereal and everything else on this chart?
Plenty of parents will remember the news breaking that baby rice cereals contained arsenic, and in much higher amounts than the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) deems safe. Others may have concerns about hormones in dairy milk, or eat meat-free diets and aren’t comfortable giving their babies meat.
So, what are some alternatives to these seemingly strict guidelines? Sharona Lazar, RD, registered dietitian at Providence Tarzana Medical Center in Tarzana, California, tells Romper that the most important part of any baby’s diet is making sure their nutritional needs are being met at each stage of their development.
“The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has a lot of information from dietitians and pediatricians that parents can google at Eatright.org, whether it’s recommendations for feeding for the first year, or vegetarian or vegan alternatives, or concerns for allergies, et cetera,” she says.
Angie Weiss, nutrition services director at Wichita Falls Area Food Bank in Texas, tells Romper that most babies will still get all the vitamins and minerals they need from breast milk or formula, but they need to explore with new foods.
“I stress balance and trying to eat from all five food groups,” Weiss says. “If any nutrient deficiencies occur, that would be a concern. With babies, the most important thing is that they’re trying new foods, which is not necessarily going to be their main source of vitamins and minerals because hopefully they’re still breastfeeding or formula-fed.”
Specifically, here are three foods you don’t absolutely have to feed your baby, and two you actually do.
1. Don’t: Rice Cereal
The main reason for introducing rice cereal at 6 months of age is making sure baby has enough iron.
“The push is to start with iron-rich foods at 6 months, especially for breastfeeding moms," says Lazar. "In the U.S., all formulas are fortified with iron. Breast milk doesn’t have much iron in it, but the baby has natural stores, and at about 6 months that’s when we need to start introducing foods rich in iron, like baby cereal."
About that arsenic: Lazar says there are multiple alternative cereals for babies that don’t have the same risks.
“Before the issue of arsenic, there was also the issue of constipation from rice cereal. Now with the concern of arsenic contamination, rice cereal is not the primary choice. You don’t have to start with infant cereal, but if someone wants to start with infant cereal, you can choose from other options such as oatmeal, barley, or quinoa.”
2. Don’t: Meat
At 6 to 9 months old, the AAP recommends introducing meat to ensure baby’s developing brain, body, and immune system have enough protein, zinc, and iron.
“From that 6- to 9-month mark, we want to be pureeing or mashing foods so there’s no choking risk. The goal is getting enough iron, zinc, and protein. You can do mashed up beans or lentils, or pureed meat and poultry," Lazar explains.
While meats are not concerning to some, families who live vegetarian or vegan lifestyles may choose not to feed animal protein to their children. Others may worry about added hormones. For those parents, options still abound.
“Someone who prefers to be vegetarian should not feel pressure to include meat and poultry in their baby’s diet, but the baby does need to have good sources of iron and zinc, so that’s where you have hummus, egg yolks, legumes, sweet potatoes, mashed up avocados, winter squash, and whole grains,” says Lazar. “Whether you’re vegetarian or not, the plant-based sources of iron-rich foods are important to include as well.”
“I’m a vegetarian. I don’t think it’s bad for kids to try meat and explore that texture,” says Weiss. “If you’re concerned about growth hormones, you can get natural forms of meat. You can pair a whole grain with a lentil, and [that] creates a complete protein. But, if you’re wanting your child to try new foods, meat is a good new food to try and they will be getting those nutrients.”
3. Don’t: Cow’s Milk
Just like meat can concern some parents, animal byproducts like milk may not be an option either. Also, with the hormones in milk causing public health concerns, like early onset of puberty, some parents just aren’t willing to risk sharing it with their children.
“Before the age of 1, cow’s milk is not recommended; it should be breast milk or formula. After the age of 1, cow’s milk is recommended by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics,” says Lazar.
This is because the ratios of protein, fat, and other nutrients in cow’s milk are the best fit for a developing baby. Parents can offer alternatives, but only if they carefully match up their alternate milk to cow’s milk’s nutritional profile.
“Oat milk and soy milk have a little more protein than almond and coconut milk. It’s the protein and the fat you’re looking for in any alternative milk. Many parents are open to giving their baby yogurt for a good source of vitamin D, as it’s a good source of probiotics, just be sure to choose a whole milk source, not low-fat, that is unsweetened to meet your baby’s needs. Just make sure they’re fortified with vitamin D,” Lazar explains.
Weiss adds that parents should ensure their baby gets the same nutrients elsewhere in their diet if they opt not to offer dairy milk.
“If they’re using plant-based milk or alternatives to dairy, they need to make sure they’re getting calcium, phosphorous, and vitamin D. You would want to look at cow’s milk’s and the alternative’s food labels, notice what they’re not getting, and supplement elsewhere. Where else can they find a place for calcium to be added?”
4. Do: Foods That Cause Allergies
The AAP and the National Institute of Health (NIH) has published studies in the past encouraging parents to introduce highly allergenic foods, like peanuts, soy, and eggs, early on in baby’s solid food exploration.
“After recent studies, we know those allergens should be introduced at the 6-month mark,” says Lazar. “Trader Joe’s has the peanut bamba snacks that are puffy and easy to feed. Introducing foods like that earlier help decrease the risk of allergies. Fish is recommended, and other allergenic foods like egg yolks or soy — like doing some vegetarian dinners with tofu.”
So, while other foods can be easily swapped for something else, including allergenic foods into your baby’s diet can help decrease their risk of developing food allergies as they grow. If you have a family history of a food allergy, be sure to bring it up with a pediatrician.
“If family members in the past have been allergic to dairy, a baby may be prone to those allergies,” Weiss says. “It’s important to be careful, and look for signs and symptoms of allergies after you give them those foods.”
5. Do: Breastmilk Or Formula
Of course, parents are feeding their babies one or the other, right? Those are musts in all infants’ diets for the first 12 months of life. However, dietitians see a lot of other beverages creeping in to babies’ bottles before they’re old enough to need them.
“Exclusive breastfeeding for at least the first six months of life has tremendous health benefits for the baby, and breast milk also maximizes optimal development of the GI tract so it is fully ready when solid foods are introduced around 6 months. Formula is the only other option. It’s recommended to give breast milk and formula throughout the first year, and water can be included, although it’s not always necessary, around the 9-month mark, ideally in a sippy cup. The use of juice in that first year is not encouraged or needed,” Lazar says.
The better alternative, if you’re looking to incorporate fruits into your baby’s diet, is to give them fruit in a safe and nutritious way. “We’d rather see babies having fresh fruit rather than juice. You can let your baby pick at berries and chunks of melon in a ‘baby-safe feeder’ as a good teether, and they can get the benefits of healthy foods without acquiring the affinity for sweet beverages.”