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How an ER doctor chooses baby food for her kids

Feeding a baby is something a parent has to do multiple times a day, every day, yet it can be one of the most confusing and stressful things any parent does.

Before the recent headlines of an infant formula shortage, parents who give their child baby food may have seen headlines about the presence of toxic heavy metals in some popular baby foods on the market.

Last year, two critical congressional reports found heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury in popular baby foods.

Homemade baby food could potentially pose the same problems as store-bought when it comes to heavy metals, according to an advocacy group’s analysis that has not been verified by the normal scientific review process .

Toxicologists say that at very low levels, heavy metals are not likely to pose a serious health threat.

Baby food in hand spoon.

STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images

But what makes the problem even more complicated is that a safe level of heavy metals in children’s foods has yet to be established, according to ABC News medical contributor Dr. Stephanie Widmer, a board-certified emergency physician. and medical toxicologist.

Widmer said research on heavy metals in baby food is in its early stages, and the Food and Drug Administration and other government agencies are working on initiatives to test heavy metal levels and establish safe levels.

In the meantime, she acknowledged that it was a confusing and sometimes scary time for parents.

“It can be a lot of overwhelming information for parents,” said Widmer, also a mother of two children aged 3 and 5. “There are just a lot of unknowns.”

What to know about heavy metals in baby food

Exposure to toxic heavy metals poses a specific risk for toddlers and infants because they absorb more than adults and their brains are still developing, according to the National Institutes of Health.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, even low blood lead levels can affect a child’s IQ, attention span, and academic achievement.

“The problem isn’t that the amount in baby food or the amount babies eat makes them seriously ill,” Widmer said. “The concern is about long-term effects on neurodevelopment, brain function, possibly long-term cancer risk down the road, and it’s really hard to establish what levels increase your risk of harm.”

Experts including Widmer point out that heavy metals are naturally occurring and found in all of our foods, making it difficult to tell parents a specific type or brand of baby food to avoid.

“It would probably be impossible to make a list of which ones are safe and which ones are not,” Widmer said. “Because everything out there really has some level of heavy metals in it. It’s in the ground and the things that grow in the ground.”

To experience adverse effects, a person would need to be exposed to toxic heavy metals for an extended period of time. Periodic ingestion of the levels found in baby food products would generally not be considered dangerous.

PHOTO: Jars of baby food are seen here.

Jars of baby food are seen here.

STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images

Diagnosing heavy metal poisoning can also be difficult, and symptoms can be easy to miss. These symptoms include things ranging from dehydration and abdominal pain to behavioral changes, weakened bones, anemia, numbness and weakness, and edema, according to the NIH.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends screening for high lead levels in children 9 to 12 months of age and then around 2 years of age.

Therapies to help children who have been overexposed to heavy metals are available, experts say.

There are also steps parents can take to limit their child’s exposure to heavy metals, according to Widmer.

What parents can do

Here are four things Widmer said he did when his two children were in the baby food stage.

1. I varied my children’s diets.

“I made sure there was variability in their diet,” Widmer said. “Heavy metals are in everything, so if you don’t eat the same thing, the same food group every day, you lower your risk.”

Widmer said the variation in her children’s diets included switching back and forth between feeding them homemade baby food and store-bought baby food, as well as frequently rotating the types of food they ate. .

“Bananas one day, baby spinach another day and making sure the variability is there,” she said. “Not having the same repeated exposure to the same food and all the compounds in that food is the best thing parents can do.”

2. I haven’t lost any sleep over it.

“Parents of toddlers already have a lot on their minds and a lot to worry about, and I wouldn’t put that high on the list,” said Widmer, who noted that only babies eat baby food for a short time. “I wouldn’t lose sleep over this.”

She continued: “It’s something that’s getting more attention and will be regulated more and more, and parents shouldn’t feel any pressure. The thing you can do is lend more attention to dietary variability.”

3. I tried to avoid a few key foods.

“Rice tends to have a lot of high levels of heavy metals,” Widmer said. “So avoiding rice-based foods and grains is probably best practice.”

In addition to rice, Widmer said she also recommends trying to limit foods that grow in soil, such as carrots, potatoes and sweet potatoes, as they can be exposed to heavy metals in the soil. .

Widmer said parents shouldn’t completely ignore these foods, but rather make sure they aren’t a daily staple in a baby’s diet.

4. I washed the food when I prepared homemade baby food.

“If you’re making baby food at home, it really helps to wash the food beforehand,” she said. “If you’re going to use a rice-based cereal or a rice-based food, it would help to really soak the rice and then wash it in boiling water.”

Widmer also recommends parents wash their baby’s hands before eating.

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