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Adding Cereal to Baby Formula
Q: Several people have encouraged me to add a teaspoon of baby cereal to my infant's formula bottle at night to help her sleep a little longer. My mother says she was advised by her doctor to do this with me 30 years ago. I've been researching it before I try it and have gotten mixed responses. Some say it works, others say it is a myth, and others say it is harmful. Is it harmful to add such a small amount to my three-week-old's bottle?
A: Adding cereal to a bottle to help a baby sleep is a myth. Studies show that there is no change in the amount of time that a baby will sleep if cereal is put into the bottle. The presumption is that the extra calories from the cereal will help the baby feel full for a longer period of time, and thus not wake up so soon to be fed. Others suggest that the slight thickening of the formula that occurs when adding cereal will allow the formula to stay in the stomach longer and thus the baby won't have an empty stomach quite so soon. However, a teaspoon of infant cereal has only 5 calories. A 4-ounce bottle of formula has 80 calories, so an extra teaspoon of cereal is a negligible contribution. And there is no significant change in how quickly the stomach empties with that small an amount of cereal. While solid foods in general take longer to be digested, this is really not applicable to infant cereal.
The main drawback of giving the cereal is that it is not necessary. While it is true that it is unlikely for there to be any real harm to the baby from having the cereal, very rarely infants can have adverse reactions (like allergies) to cereal.
The other thing to consider is what are appropriate expectations for a three-week-old baby. A three-week-old is supposed to wake and eat every three to four hours. It is not until about three months of age that we expect babies to sleep for six or seven hours at night.
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Shari Nethersole is a physician at Children's Hospital, Boston, and an instructor in Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. She graduated from Yale University and Harvard Medical School, and did her internship and residency at Children's Hospital, Boston. As a pediatrician, she tries to work with parents to identify and address their concerns.