When I first started eating a traditional food diet, I did it because it just made sense. Eating real food, sourced as locally as possible and prepared traditionally all seemed like logical ways to prepare and eat my food. Avoiding GM food, man-made ingredients, and highly processed food also made a lot of sense. However, there is one commonly held belief in the traditional food circles that I have really struggled with; the belief that babies can’t digest grains until somewhere between the ages of 1 and 2 (or when they cut their molars).
The gist of these articles is that babies don’t produce enough amylase, the proper enzyme to digest grains. Therefore it rots in their gut and can cause all kinds of health problems including food allergies.
Now let me make myself really clear:
- I am not advocating baby cereal. You can read my views about baby cereal here. I think that there are plenty of reasons we should be avoiding baby cereal, however, the argument that babies can’t digest grains is not one of them.
- I am not a doctor. I have no degree in nutrition. I am just a mom who likes to do her research. That being said, please don’t take my word for this. Do your own research. I just don’t think we should be making fear-based decisions when it comes to feeding our kids. When my second born was eating and exploring with food, I let him have some properly prepared sour-dough bread, I felt this huge wave of guilt that I was doing something bad. This is partly why I started researching this topic. As parents, we have enough to worry about, we shouldn’t be afraid to feed our kids real, whole, properly prepared foods. I had to get down to the bottom of this amylase issue.
- I am also not advocating eating grains without properly preparing them first (soaking, sprouting, fermenting, etc.).
Now that I got that out of the way, let’s get down to business. Can babies digest grains?
I found it funny that babies can digest meat, but not bread? I also found it funny that no research-based sources are cited for the information. Whenever I see a health claim, I like to go to the source; see the study and research for myself. The sources that are cited for the grain argument are either a book written by one of the bloggers or the Nourishing Traditions book for babies. They both cite the Weston A. Price foundation who cites the Nourishing Traditions book. I felt like I was going in circles trying to get down to the actual studies that supported the fact that babies can’t digest grains. There is one study cited that show that babies do not produce the digestive enzyme amylase until around 3-6 months of age, but does that prove that babies can’t digest grains?
I found several things in my research which leads me to believe that breast-fed babies who are old enough to eat solids do have the necessary tools to digest properly prepared grains even if they are not producing enough amylase.
1. Breastmilk contains a lot of amylase. (1)
2. The amylase in breastmilk “could retain a significant proportion of its original activity after exposure to acid and pepsin in the stomach of young infants.” (2) This means that even after being exposed to the acid in the baby’s stomach, the amylase is still able to accomplish it’s function.
Therefore, if a baby is breastfed, even if he or she is not producing a sufficient amount of amylase to digest grains, they are being supplemented with amylase from their mother’s breast milk. The amylase from the breastmilk can survive in the baby’s stomach acid for up to four hours to further help in the digestion of solids.
Isn’t God’s creation amazing? This kind of information really blows me away. I’m sure it’s not even a complete picture of how God created our bodies for nourishment. I also feel like this one piece of information has been left out of all of the arguments against feeding babies grains.
For a more thorough explanation of how babies are able to digest grains, read Should You Delay Introducing Grains to Your Baby? and Amylase in Infancy: Can Babies Digest Starch?. Update: Kitchen Stewardship just came out with another great post on this issue. Read it here.
***I also think it’s important to note that there are many people today with compromised gut health. This was the case with my second born son. Even though he was receiving plenty of breast milk, he still had a strong reaction to all dairy and all grains containing gluten. He broke out in eczema, had cradle cap reappear, and developed a red ring around his bottom that was indicative of food allergies. For him, he was not ready for grains or dairy until he was much older. I think we need to use wisdom in feeding our kids and watching for reactions because not all kids are the same. Generally, however, for an older breast-fed baby with no signs of a compromised gut, I feel prone to believe that they are perfectly equipped to digest properly-prepared grains (in moderation) because what they are lacking is provided through their mother’s milk..
Whew, I’m glad I got that off my chest. I could be totally wrong about this, but these are the questions in my head and this is the information I have found so far. I think it’s important to ask these questions and to not just believe everything we read without looking at the source.