Feeding cereal to your baby too soon may increase the risk that the child later develops Type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disorder that can lead to severe complications later in life. But, the finding is controversial.

Researchers, led by Jill Norris of the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver, report in this week's Journal of the American Medical Associaton that it may not be a good idea to feed babies infant cereal too soon after birth.

"We found that timing of the introduction of cereal in the infant diet may play a role in why people get autoimmunity or Type 1 diabetes," she said.

Autoimmunity occurs when a person's immune system cells attack their body. The process is thought to trigger a number of diseases, including Type 1, or juvenile diabetes, a disease that can eventually lead to blindness, kidney disease and heart problems.

In a study of almost 1,200 infants between 1994 and 2002, researchers looked at the effect of introducing solid foods between birth and three months of age, and after six months. Pediatricians generally recommend that parents begin infant cereal between four to six months of age.

"Children exposed to cereals before four months of age were four times as likely to develop diabetes autoimmunity than children who were exposed between four and six months of age," said Jill Norton. "We also showed that children who were not exposed to cereals until after six months of age were five times as likely to develop diabetes autoimmunity than children first exposed between four and six months."

Cereals in combination with breast milk, according to Ms. Norton, appear to decrease the risk of diabetes auto-immunity.

In a related article in the Journal of the American Medical Associaton, German researchers studied the timing of exposures to breast milk, milk formula, and gluten-containing foods, including infant cereal, in 1,600 newborns.

In their article, the German researches conclude that there is a five-fold increase in the risk of juvenile diabetes later in life for babies fed solids before three months of age, but only if their parents are Type 1 diabetics.

An editorial in the journal says parents should be cautious about both findings since the studies only contained a small number of infants, and there is no evidence infants who develop diabetic antibodies will eventually become Type 1 diabetics.