Can Babies Digest Grains? The truth behind this common myth
Is it true that babies can’t digest grains before age 1 or 2? “Why Babies Shouldn’t Eat Grains” and “Ditch the Infant Cereals” are common refrains in articles floating around the internet.
Reasons for these claims include the so-called inability for babies to digest grains until their molars develop (age 1-2). Apparently, the grains rot in the gut causing food allergies and behaviour problems.
Could this possibly be true? In this blog, I’ll discuss whether grains are healthy or harmful for your baby’s health and the best grains for your baby.
Do babies have enough amylase to digest grains?
One argument for why babies should avoid grains is that they don’t make enough amylase when they start eating solid foods. Amylase is an enzyme that digests complex carbohydrates. Sounds scientific….
But fruits and veggies can also contain complex carbs, so why are they not targeted too? I believe it’s mostly due to diet culture. If we believe a grain-free diet is healthful as an adult (which I would argue, it isn’t), then maybe it’s good for our kids too. Read on to find out why this isn’t the case.
Amylase & digestion of starch
Amylase is present in saliva as well as produced by the pancreas.
To look first at salivary amylase, it’s important to know that very little digestion occurs in the mouth. It’s almost all in the small intestine. And normally salivary amylase is inactivated when it reaches the stomach, due to pH anyways.
However, salivary amylase is responsible for the beginning of carbohydrate breakdown and is found at very low levels in newborns. But is it low until a year or two of age? No.
Between 3-6 months salivary amylase increases in abundance. Another study found amylase to be 2/3 of adult levels by 3 months of age So although I hear lack of salivary amylase as an excuse that babies can’t digest complex carbs, research and physiology easily prove otherwise.
Now to move on to the small intestine, where most digestion occurs. Maybe this is the source of this problem?
Here the pancreas excretes pancreatic amylase to help break down long carbohydrate chains into simple sugars for digestion. Pancreatic amylase levels are only 3% adult levels in newborns and begin to increase at seven to eight months. Pancreatic amylase levels don’t reach full adult values until 5-8 So with limited pancreatic amylase, does this mean the baby can’t digest carbs? What would this lead to? Basically, the complex carbs would be undigested in the large intestine and fermented by bacteria, causing gas. The colon would then absorb the gas. Not deadly, but maybe a bit uncomfortable!
If babies don’t have enough pancreatic amylase, how can they digest grain products and carbohydrates?
Reasons why most babies can digest grains & carbohydrates
1) Other enzymes help digest starch:
There are enzymes beyond just pancreatic amalyse in the small intestine that breaks down the carbs. So they can be used for energy instead of just producing gas. Phew!
Isomaltase and glucoamylase are at mature levels in the term baby. Glucoamylase splits the multiple glucose molecules from a complex carb so they can be absorbed. This is especially useful for babies, who have low levels of pancreatic amylase, as we learned above.
2) Baby’s body produces more amylase as carbs are introduced:
Interestingly, it seems that once complex carb-containing food is introduced to your baby, his/her body responds by secreting more amylase.
The same thing occurs with protein introduction and trypsin, the enzyme that digests protein.
So the body adapts somewhat to what it is fed -cool!
3) Breastmilk contains amylase too:
Normally salivary amylase is inactivated once it reaches the stomach, due to more acidic pH levels in the stomach. However, the amylase in breast milk is not inactivated in the stomach and it continues to work in the small intestine on digesting breast milk.
This amylase activity also works to help the breastfed baby digest other solid foods. Making it easier for them to digest carbs. The wonders of breast milk!
So starches can be broken down and used by babies under 1 year of age, even without a lot of pancreatic amylase activity.
Grains for baby
Review studies show few disadvantages of high intake of carbohydrates for young children (age 0-4 years). Basically, just cavities (of course influenced by oral hygiene).
With no evidence for detrimental effects on nutrient dilution, obesity, diabetes or cognition. In fact, our body’s preferred and main source of fuel is carbohydrates. Whole grains are healthy for your baby!
They provide not only a source of energy. But also fibre and a wide range of other vitamins and minerals for a healthy diet like B vitamins, magnesium and iron.
Infant rice cereal alternatives
Do babies need to eat iron-fortified infant cereal? No. There are other sources of iron that are better absorbed (namely red meat).
The purpose of infant cereals isn’t really for the grain, it’s more of a delivery mechanism for iron. Iron is the most important nutrient for your baby to get from solids. And meat contains the most absorbable form of iron.
If you do choose rice cereal, I would suggest using it only a few times per week and rotating with other baby cereals, due to the arsenic content in rice. And surprisingly, brown rice cereal is higher in arsenic than white rice.
So you can offer your baby infant cereals. Preferably whole grain vs refined grain for more fibre (unless it’s rice cereal). Try oat, wheat, or mixed grain. If you’re doing baby-led weaning, you could offer a pre-loaded spoon, roll strips of slippery foods like avocado in infant cereal or substitute half of the flour in your baking recipes with infant cereal.
But also offer a variety of other types of grain as first foods too, whether you choose infant cereal or not. Finger foods such as whole-wheat toast strips topped with avocado, hummus or nut butter, oatmeal, quinoa, pasta and more will offer variety to a balanced diet. And be sure to balance grains with other healthy foods. Offer fruit or vegetable at each meal, along with a source of iron and some fat.
When can I give my baby grains?
Recommended guidelines are to start solids around 6 months of age, concentrating on iron-rich foods. Iron is really important for your baby’s growing body and brain development.
Gluten-containing grains should be introduced fairly soon. Wheat, barley and rye all contain gluten.
Why do I suggest introducing gluten-containing grains at 6 months? You thought gluten was the devil?!
research shows that gluten introduction should occur no later than 7 months of age, and late introduction (as well as an early introduction, before 4 months) has been shown to increase the risk of developing celiac disease.
This fits along with the current allergy prevention research: delayed exposure may actually be detrimental. Wheat is a higher risk allergen, so introduce it around 6 months for potential prevention of both allergies and celiac disease.
Phew. It turns out that you don’t have to worry about the unfounded fear-mongering out there about babies and grains!
Jennifer House is a Registered Dietitian, author & mom of 3. From Baby-led weaning to picky eating and meal planning, she helps you to make feeding your family easier
Founder of First Step Nutrition | Registered Dietitian Nutritionist
Jen believes raising happy, well-nourished eaters who have a healthy relationship with food doesn't have to be a battle! She is an author and speaker with 18 years of experience specializing in family nutrition and helps parents teach their kids to try new foods without yelling, tricking, or bribing.