When parents initially contact us at Magnificent Munchers, Therapy for Fussy Eaters, they often start the conversation with “I know it is my fault”. This always makes my heart sink a little. All the parents who contact me have already tried so many ways to get their child to eat a wider variety of food. They have often had advice from Health Professionals, family or friends, and are feeling very frustrated.
As parents we often start by blaming ourselves but there are so many factors to consider. Nature and nurture, impact on a child’s taste development and eating patterns. I think it is helpful to try to understand some of these factors.
Early Taste Experiences
The first taste experience happens early on. Whilst the baby is developing in utero the smells and flavour of the mother’s food passes to the baby through the amniotic fluid. As the developing baby swallows the amniotic fluid it passes over the smell and taste receptors in the nose and mouth. The baby is starting to learn about the mother’s food preferences.
The mother’s food preferences continue to influence the baby’s taste development during breast feeding. The breast milk contains taste molecules from the mother’s food. Babies are born with a preference for sweet tastes as breast milk is naturally slightly sweet and a good source of energy. The baby then learns to like the taste of salt, sour and umami. Umani (a savoury meaty taste) Fat is also now being considered as the 6th basic taste.
Research has shown that the mother’s food preferences in pregnancy and during breast feeding can influence food liked by the baby during the weaning process.
Do Our Genes Cause Fussy Eaters
This is evidence now showing that our food preferences are influenced by our genetic makeup. There are genes responsible for our perception of bitter and fat tastes as well as the growth and development of our taste buds. How do we measure taste perception? Some Scientists test taste perception through responsiveness to a bitter compound, called 6-n-propylthiouracil or PROP. Depending on an individual’s response to the PROP test they can be grouped into super-tasters, medium tasters or Non-tasters. Super Tasters perceive PROP as intensely bitter and find it disgusting. Medium-tasters find the PROP mildly bitter but don’t mind it. Non-tasters do not perceive the PROP at all.
The Supertasters have a higher perception of bitter tastes. These are the people who in general don’t like green leafy vegetables. The brussel sprouts, kale and cabbage haters! It appears that Supertasters not only have a high perception of bitter tastes but are also have a higher perception of sourness, saltiness, sweetness and creaminess. These are likely to be more picky eaters. Perhaps this is why in one family there can be a brussel sprout lover as well as a sprout hater! It is our genes.
Eating with your baby/toddler helps them to learn about food
What we eat, the way we eat and how we present food to our child also has a large impact of their preferences. Children need to look at, feel, smell and explore food to become familiar with it. They need to see others eating food to learn how to eat and which foods are safe.
Research has shown that the more exposure a baby has to a food the more likely they are to accept it. When given a new food babies will often gag or grimace initially. If they are offered the same food again several times they are likely to accept it. It is worth persevering but if they become very upset, turn their head or block their mouths it maybe they are struggling with the food taste. Perhaps it is too bitter.
Exposing young children to a small amount of a food over 20 consecutive days reduces the fear factor of the new food. The more varied the food tastes offered before the age of two the more likely that the child will accept a wider range of foods into the diet. In older children foods generally need to be tasted at least 10 times before they are accepted.
How To Get Your Baby or Toddler To Eat
Babies need to learn which foods are safe to eat by watching others eat the food. If we grimace and turn away from food, they are likely to copy this as they will think the food is unsafe. However, if we smile and use an encouraging tone of voice the baby is more likely to eat the food.
Eating freshly prepared food together gives opportunities to learn about the look of foods, explore different textures and learn food smells. Commercial baby foods tend not to have the taste or texture variety. They do not provide such wide opportunities for food smells to be learnt.
As the baby moves from milk to solid food so they must learn to cope with textured food. The biggest period of change for the baby’s chewing skills development is between the ages of 6-12 months. During this time they develop the oral-motor skills to deal with the food by moving it around in their mouth to chew it and break it down before swallowing. They need to be given textured food in order to develop the necessary oral motor skills for chewing. Babies mouths are very sensitive. It takes time to get used to the feel of different textures but the more the baby experiences textures the more comfortable they will become with it.
Delaying the introduction of the lumpy food makes it more difficult for the baby to accept the feel of the lumps in their mouth.
Dealing with Textured Food
As the baby moves onto larger and harder lumps, they may get a lump which hasn’t been broken down enough. This means it is caught on the back of the tongue resulting in the baby coughing to bring the food back into the mouth. This is to protect their airway and is a normal response. We have this reflex from birth.
The trickiest foods for a baby to learn to deal with are mixed textures foods. These have a lump and a creamy texture. The baby needs to learn to chew the lump sufficiently, so it can safely be swallowed with the liquid. If the lump is too hard or too big then the baby needs to move the lump to the side of the mouth whilst they swallow the liquid. This is a complex task. During the learning process the baby is likely to try to swallow the mixture together several times which will trigger the cough reflex.
There are many factors which influence taste and food preferences in the developing baby and young child. These include the mothers’ food preferences both in the ante natal and breast-feeding stages. Our genes predispose us to our liking of some foods especially bitter tastes. Some of us may never like brussel sprouts. The way we feed our babies both in terms of the food we give them and the way we approach feeding can have an impact on their food preferences.
We know eating is a complex task with some babies struggling to develop the skills needed to transition onto textured food. Some babies are more sensitive than others which impacts on their food preferences.
At Magnificent Munchers we tend to see children with less than 20 foods in their diet. The preferred foods are bland, beige and easy to eat.
Harris G and Shea E 2018, Food Refusal and Avoidant Eating in Children, Including those with Autism Spectrum Conditions. A Practical Guide for Parents and Professionals [Wordery]
Llewellyn Claire, (June 2018), BBC Podcast Five tips for Your Fussy Eater [BBC]
Manon Mura Paroche, Samantha J Caton, Crolus M J L Vereijken, Hugo Weenen and Carmel Houston- Price (8 June, 2017) Frontiers in Psychology “ How Infants and young Children Learn about Food”: A Systematic Review [Frontiers Media]
Mennella J A (2009) Author Manuscripts, Development of Food Preferences: Lessons Learnt from Longitudinal and Experimental Studies [NCBI]
Peleteiro S (2016) Leatherhead Food Research white paper. “How do our genes impact our food choices” [Leatherhead Food Research]
Picture of family eating ID36608755 @ Monkey Business Images / Dreamstime.com [Dreamstime]
Picture of pregnant woman ID 6187260 @ Katarzyna Bialasiewica / Dreamstime.com