Here’s the science
Before a child is born it has experienced many flavour sensations. (1) By 6 months gestation the senses allowing taste are functional and as the foetus swallows amniotic fluid, flavour from the mother’s diet are experienced by the baby. (1, 2) The same applies to flavours transferred into breast milk and consequently the flavours which a baby is exposed to during breastfeeding are more readily accepted when introduced as solids. (1, 2)
How can you use this to your advantage?
So before a baby is born a mother can take advantage of this pretty cool science to help increase her baby’s acceptance of fruits and vegetables by eating plenty of it herself. Quiet obviously there are plenty of other reasons that pregnant women should fill up on the good stuff too.
But the opportunities don’t end there. If a mother breastfeeds her child the opportunities to develop acceptance of fruits and vegetables continues firstly through the flavours carried in the breast milk but also through the associations developed from the sensory and emotional processes of nourishment, security, warmth, contact and attention experienced during breastfeeding and while tasting these flavours. (1) That is, a baby begins to develop an association with the flavour of veggies and being nourished.
It’s not fool proof
Of course there is no guarantee that exposing your baby to these flavours during pregnancy and breastfeeding will completely avoid fussy food behaviours during childhood, but it will help set you on the right path, if not due to the flavour transfer but definitely by exposure to a positive role model and a food environment that promotes eating fruit and vegetable.
Keep in mind that children have an innate preference for sweet and salty flavours, but an aversion to sour and bitter as a natural response to compounds which may be toxic. (1, 3) It is also worth keeping in mind that those foods which are consumed when a child is most hungry become associated with the desirable feeling of satiety and as such these foods become preferences. (3) The context in which a food is consume also plays a major role in the associations developed with that food and flavour, a stressful environment will create a negative association - so relax. (2)
Keep the ball rolling
As I said, plenty of fruit and veg during pregnancy and breastfeeding is just the tip of the iceberg in getting kids to wilfully accept fruit and vegetables (I wanted to say happily accept, but I thought this might be a stretch). To keep the ball rolling and increase your child’s acceptance of flavours and new foods before solids are introduced:
- Aim for a pregnancy and breast feeding diet that is highly varied and comprises a wide variety of foods and flavours (although don’t expect miracles - fear of new foods is a natural, protective response)
- Expose your baby to food aromas – get your cook on and fill the house with the wonderful smell of herbs, spices, baking and broth
- Allow your baby to see parents and siblings enjoy a variety of different foods and food situations
- Create a positive family food environment – relaxed, social, calm, regular routine, aesthetically pleasing environment, without distractions from TV or other media devices
- Encourage your baby to be involved with the family food environment - seat them at, or near the table, let them watch food preparation, encourage play with utensils (plastic cups, spoons and bowls)
- Repeat exposure to new foods (10 - 20 times may be necessary to develop acceptance of new foods)
- Don’t use food as a reward (this can have a variety of undesirable repercussions)
- Don’t bribe or punish a child for not consuming food of finishing their plate
- Offer foods of a variety of different texture and encourage them to become familiar with them the best way kids know how – with their hands! Squishing, squashing and rubbing food all helps children become familiar with, and accept, different textures. Draw the line at throwing or other unproductive behaviour and as they get older you can guide their table manners.
- Allow a child to regulate their own appetite (don’t force feed, but try to keep eating to meal/ snack times, served food in regular settings, away from the TV; snack size meals every 2-3hrs is appropriate for small children)
- Offer a child the foods you desire them to consume when they are most hungry (allow them to eat their vegetables before the rest of their meal to develop associations with satiety, not as a reward/bribe system)
- Praise a child for tasting and/or trying a new food, even if they don't eat it
- Comment on the enjoyment of food you are consuming – “this carrot is really tasty,” I like how crunchy it is,”
- Keep items out of sight that you don’t want to promote consumption of (put the biscuit tin in the cupboard), but make available items which you want your child to consume (put the fruit bowl on the bench)
1. Blake A. Flavour perception and the learning of food. In: Taylor AR, D.C.,editor. Flavour perception: Oxford: Blackwell Publishing; 2004. p. 173-202.
2.Ganchrow J, Mennella, J. The ontogeny of human flavour perception. In: Doty RL,editor. Handbook of olfaction and gustation (2nd Ed). New York: Marcel Dekker Inc.; 2003. p. 823-46.
3. Birch, L. Fisher, J. Development of eating behaviours among children and adolescents. Pediatrics. 1998;539(11).