When can babies eat barley?
Barley may be introduced as soon as a baby is ready to start solids, which is generally around 6 months of age. Note that barley contains gluten and is therefore not safe for those with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
Where does barley come from?
Barley is a family of cereal grasses that are widely cultivated for the edible seeds that we call grains. The grasses originated in Africa and Asia, where different varieties of wild barley thrived throughout the fertile lands between the Mediterranean Sea to the Yangtze River. Around 10,000 years ago, humans learned to cultivate barley and other ancient grains like emmer and einkorn wheat—an agricultural milestone that not only nourished our ancestors, but helped power the development of civilizations around the globe. Today, the plant grows worldwide in cool climates—from the South American plains where barley is called cebada, to the Tibetan plateau where the grain is known as jau, nas, and qīngkē and made into a staple flour called tsampa.
Is barley healthy for babies?
Yes. Barley contains good amounts of protein for cells to grow, energy from carbohydrates, and fiber for healthy digestion. It even contains a special type of soluble fiber, beta glucan, which is particularly beneficial for gut and immune health.1 Additionally, barley offers B vitamins (including B6 and folate), zinc, and traces of iron. This grain also benefits the body by supplying all 8 forms of vitamin E and a range of plant compounds that act as antioxidants, support heart and skin health, and more.2
Certain plant compounds in grains like barley—namely lectins, oxalates, and phytates—have gotten a bad reputation for reducing our bodies ability to absorb nutrients.3 Fear not: these plant compounds are generally harmless in healthy people and may even contain beneficial properties.4 Soaking and cooking whole grain barley decreases the concentration of these compounds and improves nutrient absorption.5 If you have time to soak barley before cooking, that’s great! Otherwise, don’t worry—soaked or unsoaked, barley provides plenty of benefits as part of a varied diet.
★Tip: When shopping for barley, check out the bulk bins: bulk barley tends to be quite affordable, and even organic barley can be much cheaper when bought this way. Store barley in an air-tight container, away from light and moisture.
Can babies eat gluten?
Yes—if a child does not have an allergy to gluten-containing grains, celiac disease, or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Gluten is a type of protein in wheat and other grains such as barley, rye, and triticale, and can also be present in certain kinds of oats. Gluten is fine to consume, but it becomes problematic for individuals with celiac disease, an autoimmune condition that affects an estimated 1-2% of the Western world.6 When an individual with celiac disease consumes food with gluten, the small intestine becomes damaged.7 8 9 Some individuals may be sensitive to gluten but may not have a wheat allergy or celiac disease – this reaction may be non-celiac gluten sensitivity (not generally common in babies and toddlers). However, gluten-containing grains can also contain carbohydrates like fructans that are difficult for some individuals to digest, which can be mistaken for allergies or intolerance to gluten.
Are there heavy metals in barley?
Frequently, yes. Heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, and lead are possible in barley and other grains, which the plants absorb from soil and water.10 11 12 The concentrations of these metals vary greatly and, in addition, pesticide use in barley agriculture is high.13 14 Rinsing grains prior to cooking may help remove some pesticide residues.15 As for heavy metal contamination, a well-balanced diet with a wide range of whole foods helps to offset the risk of exposure to heavy metals.16
Is barley a common choking hazard for babies?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention names barley and other whole grains as choking hazards for babies younger than 12 months old.17 As barley grains are quite small, they are unlikely to be a true choking hazard as they would not block the airway, but they do pose an aspiration risk—when a small grain accidentally enters the trachea while baby eats. The body coughs reflexively when this occurs, protecting the airway. To reduce the risk, never place foods like barley into a baby’s mouth, as aspiration risk is significantly lowered when babies self-feed. As always, make sure you create a safe eating environment and stay within an arm’s reach of baby during meals. For more information on choking, visit our sections on gagging and choking and familiarize yourself with the list of common choking hazards.
Is barley a common allergen?
No, barley is not considered a common allergen, but reactions to barley have been reported, and may be severe.18 19 Some individuals who are allergic to wheat (a common allergen) or rye may also be sensitive to barley.20 21
Gluten-containing grains have been reported as a trigger of food protein-induced enterocolitis syndrome, also known as FPIES.22 23 24 25 FPIES is a rare and delayed allergy to food protein which causes the sudden onset of repetitive vomiting and diarrhea to begin a few hours after ingestion of the food trigger. Left untreated, the reaction can result in significant dehydration.26 27 Fortunately, most cases resolve completely by early childhood. To learn more about FPIES, read our post on Food Allergens and Babies.
Individuals with Oral Allergy Syndrome (also known as pollen food allergy syndrome) may be sensitive to barley, particularly those who are allergic to grass pollen.28 In some cases, patients with pollen food allergy syndrome develop bloating and abdominal discomfort after consuming increased quantities of grains, including barley.
While rare, some individuals have a condition known as food-dependent, exercise-induced anaphylaxis, which can result in a severe allergic reaction if the person exercises within a few hours after eating certain food allergens, including gluten-containing grains such as barley. These patients should avoid eating barley in the four hours before strenuous activity.29
Barley contains gluten, which must be avoided in those who have celiac disease. Celiac disease requires a strict, lifelong gluten-free diet and lifestyle.30 A gluten “allergy” is typically a misnomer, often in reference to celiac disease.31
If you suspect baby may be allergic to barley, talk to your baby’s doctor before introducing barley at home. As you would when introducing any new food, start by offering a small quantity for the first few servings and watch closely for any signs of an allergic reaction. If there is no adverse reaction, gradually increase the amount over future servings.
Can barley help babies poop?
Yes. Barley offers good amounts of fiber—beta-glucan in particular—as well as resistant starches and other qualities that, in combination with a balanced and varied diet, can help support overall digestive health and bowel regularity.32 Resistant starches “resist” typical digestion and instead travel to the large intestines, where they feed beneficial gut bacteria.33 34 35 Note that pooping patterns can vary significantly from child to child. Be sure to talk to your pediatric healthcare provider if you have concerns about baby’s pooping and digestive function.
How do you prepare barley for babies with baby-led weaning?
Every baby develops on their own timeline, and the suggestions on how to cut or prepare particular foods are generalizations for a broad audience. Your child is an individual and may have needs or considerations beyond generally accepted practices. In determining the recommendations for size and shape of foods, we use the best available scientific information regarding gross, fine, and oral motor development to minimize choking risk. The preparation suggestions we offer are for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for child-specific, one-on-one advice from your pediatric medical or health professional or provider. It is impossible to fully eliminate all risk of a baby or child choking on any liquid, puree, or food. We advise you to follow all safety protocols we suggest to create a safe eating environment and to make educated choices for your child regarding their specific needs. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read or seen here.
6 to 9 months old: Barley porridge is a simple way to introduce the grain to baby, and makes an excellent vehicle for new flavors: your favorite spices, mashed fruits and vegetables, or finely ground nut, for example. You can also use barley flakes (rolled barley) or barley flour to make pancakes or breads. Offer a strip of crispy toasted bread about the size of two adult fingers pressed together, or the end of a crusty loaf of bread (read why the ends are often safer) for baby to munch on. Just know that bread, when moistened by saliva, can stick to the tongue and to the roof of the mouth and cause gagging.
9 to 12 months old: Continue to serve barley porridges, pancakes, and breads, as well as meatballs and patties with cooked barley mixed in. Offer these foods cut into bite-sized pieces (about the size of a large adult knuckle) to help babies practice their developing pincer grasp, where the index finger and thumb come together to pick up smaller pieces of food. Use barley flakes to add grip to slippery fruits like apricot halves or mango spears, or try offering cooked barley grains on their own or as part of a grain salad, using a fork to flatten the grains to make them easier for self-feeding.
12 to 24 months old : Continue serving barley in porridge, breads, and pancakes, as well as curries, soups, and stews. Barley grains help thicken a stew’s texture, which can make it easier for toddlers to practice eating stews with a spoon. If the child is not interested in using utensils, keep in mind that using utensils can be exhausting for new eaters, and many children toggle back and forth between feeding themselves with their fingers and utensils. Try not to apply too much pressure—consistent and accurate utensil use will come in due time—probably between 18 and 24 months of age.
Get out of your breakfast rotation rut with our guide 50 Breakfasts for Babies & Toddlers.
What are recipe ideas for cooking with barley?
Barley can be purchased as whole grain berries (with or without the hull removed), pearled grains (with the outer bran removed), grits or flakes (similar in look and texture to rolled oats), or flour. Use whole or pearled barley in warm grain salads with fruit and tangy cheeses. Mix with ground meat and seasonings to make a stuffing for bell peppers, squash, or portobello mushrooms, or add it to soups and stews. Or make a simple barley porridge that you can enjoy alongside baby. Barley porridge is often sweetened, but it tastes delicious with savory flavors, too. Try mixing in squash puree and warm spices like cardamom, garam masala, or mace, then top with butter or ghee, if desired.
★Tip: Soaking whole or pearled barley not only reduces cooking time, but helps the body digest the nutrients and plant-based iron in the grains. To soak, simply rinse the grains until the water runs clear. Cover the grains with fresh water in a bowl and soak for up to 8 hours at room temperature. Strain and rinse the soaked barley again, then proceed with cooking.
Recipe: Slow Cooker Barley and Beef Dafina (Sabbath Stew)
Yield: 12 cups (3 liters)
Time: 8 ½ hours
Age: 6 months+
- 2 large potatoes
- 2 large onions
- 4 garlic cloves
- 1 cup (200 grams) dry chickpeas
- 1 cup (200 grams) dry pearled barley
- 2 pounds (1 kilogram) brisket
- 2 beef marrow bones (optional)
- 6 cups (1 ½ liters) low-sodium beef stock
- 1 ½ teaspoon (3 grams) ground coriander
- 1 ½ teaspoon (3 grams) ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon (2 grams) ground allspice
- 1 teaspoon (2 grams) ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon (2 grams) ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon (2 grams) turmeric
- 1 tablespoon (9 grams) salt (optional: 12 months+)
- 6 sprigs fresh parsley (optional)
- The steps below explain how to cook this recipe in a slow cooker. To make this recipe in the oven, simply follow the instructions to prepare the ingredients, placing them in a large ovenproof pot with a tight-fitting lid. Bake the dafina at 200 degrees Fahrenheit (93 degrees Celsius) for 12 hours.
- Wash and peel the potatoes.
- Peel and finely chop the onions and garlic.
- Wash the chickpeas and barley until the water runs clear. If you like, swap chickpea for fava beans or your dried bean of choice.
- Place the potatoes in a slow cooker. Sprinkle the onion and garlic on top of the potatoes in an even layer.
- Cut the brisket into bite-sized cubes. If you like, you can swap brisket for pre-cut stew beef. Lay the cubed beef and beef bones on top of the vegetables in the slow cooker.
- Sprinkle the chickpeas and barley over the meat.
- Place the stock in a large bowl and whisk in the spices and salt. For babies under 12 months of age, hold the salt and season the individual servings of older eaters.
- Pour the mixture over the ingredients in the slow cooker. Add enough water to cover the ingredients. Cover and set the slow cooker to cook on low heat for 8 hours.
- When you are ready to serve, scoop out and discard the beef bones, then scoop some dafina into baby’s bowl. Reduce the choking hazard by shredding the beef, smashing the chickpeas, cutting the potatoes into wedges, and flattening the barley in baby’s bowl. Season baby’s portion with some finely chopped parsley leaves. Let baby’s food cool to room temperature.
- Serve the dafina to baby and let the child try to self-feed. To encourage the use of a utensil, simply preload a spoon and rest it next to the food for baby to try to pick up. Alternatively, pass the preloaded utensil in the air for baby to grab.
To Store: Barley and Beef Dafina keeps in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 4 days or in the freezer for 2 months.
J. Truppi, MS, CNS. Certified Nutrition Specialist®
V. Kalami, MNSP, RD, CSP. Board-Certified Pediatric Dietitian and Nutritionist.
K. Tatiana Maldonado, MS, CCC-SLP, CBIS, CLEC. Pediatric Feeding Therapist.
K. Grenawitzke, OTD, OTR/L, SCFES, IBCLC, CNT. Pediatric Feeding Therapist.
Dr. S. Bajowala, MD, FAAAAI. Board-Certified Allergist & Immunologist (allergy section)
Dr. R. Ruiz, MD, FAAP. Board-Certified General Pediatrician & Pediatric Gastroenterologist
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