I recently wrote a three blog series about the how, what and when to introduce food to babies. There seems to be a sweet spot in the 5-7 month window for introducing foods to babies for the prevention of multiple allergic and autoimmune diseases. I received several emails from readers in the months after with one main question. People wondered whether babies could really digest grain so young. Many had heard that babies could not digest grains until 12 months of age. Let’s dig deeper into whether babies can digest grain.
Can babies digest grains?
In a recent post I recommended whole grains as an introductory food for babies. Readers asked if infants were able digest grains so young because they had heard that infants can’t digest grains until 1 year. It is true that the pancreatic secretion of amylase, the enzyme that digests the starch in grains, is quite low compared to older children and adult levels of pancreatic amylase.(1,2) This led to questioning the advice of introducing grains to infants. However, research from Italy in 1975 showed that most of the starch fed to 1-3 months olds was completely absorbed in the intestines.(3) So what is going on here?
It turns out infants have a few sources of amylase to help digest grains besides the pancreatic source of amylase. Salivary amylase, as well as the amylase that is present in breast milk, both help to digest the starch in grains and vegetables.(4,5) Salivary amylase reaches 2/3 of adult levels by 3 months of age.(4) The amylase in breast milk is highest in colostrum and gradually decreases until it plateaus at 6-27 months of age.(5) Additionally, the lining of the gut secretes its own glucoamylase enzyme that also digests the starch in grains. Glucoamylase increases from the first feeding and reaches adult levels at 1 month.(6) Now, this is not to suggest that babies’ diets be built around grains like the old advice of giving white rice cereal as the first food but it does show that grains are far from forbidden food for infants.
The Bottom Line
What this means to me is that babies are capable of digesting grains around 5 months and should be introduced to them, at least once, for the education of the immune system. Akin to the hygiene theory, it looks like babies need to be introduced to a variety of foods to create a tolerance to them later in life. Grains, especially ancient grains like quinoa, barley and millet, have their place in a healthy diet but we should be mindful to remember the nutritional importance of breast feeding when thinking about introducing food to infants. The research clearly points to the positive impact breast milk has on the baby’s immune system, including its reaction to food. While we’ve learned how grains can be a part of a baby’s healthy diet, we shouldn’t lose sight of the importance that breast milk, organic vegetables, legumes and fruit, as well as healthy fats from nuts/seeds, coconut and animals have in baby first diet.
-Dr. Catherine Clinton