Trying to get children to eat a wide variety of foods can be challenging, often becoming an exhausting battle of wills. Most mothers will at some point be exposed to temper tantrums as a result of defiance at feeding times. Weaning, the gradual introduction of solid food, is the time when a child first has an opportunity to actively express a like or dislike for specific foods; adding small amounts of different foods at meal times can gradually improve the variety and balance of a child’s diet. Interestingly, weaning is not the first time that a child will experience a particular flavour. Both before and immediately after birth we are exposed to a myriad of flavours that will influence our subsequent liking and choice of foods. Not only do these early experiences mould long-term food and flavour preferences, but they can also impact on later health. The developing foetus is first exposed to such flavour experiences from tasting the amniotic fluid and then later, after birth, via the mother’s breast milk. Therefore the mother’s diet, both during and after her pregnancy, plays a major role in influencing her offspring’s subsequent taste for food.1,2
In a 2001 study, infants whose mothers were randomly assigned to drink carrot juice during the last trimester of pregnancy or whilst breastfeeding enjoyed carrot-flavoured cereals more than those infants whose mother did not drink carrot juice or eat carrots.3 The authors concluded, after watching video footage of the children eating the cereal, that exposure to carrot flavour via the amniotic fluid or breast milk led to a greater acceptance and enjoyment of carrot flavour during weaning.
In a later study, breast-fed infants were more accepting of peaches than formula-fed infants, as determined by intake, rate of consumption and facial expressions.4 This enhanced acceptance of fruit was most likely due to more exposure to fruit flavours, as their mothers ate more fruit whilst breast feeding. Trying to determine what foods our children like at such a young age is usually established by the facial expressions of the child. However it is important that parents continue to introduce a good variety of foods to their child and to continue to expose him or her to foods that on first introduction they might not seem to enjoy. Even with foods that might seem to be distasteful, once weaned, infants who receive repeated dietary exposure to a food eat more of it and may learn to like its flavour. However, because infants innately display facial expressions of distaste in response to certain flavours, parents may hesitate to continue offering these foods. Infants should be given repeated opportunities to taste such foods and parents should focus not only on their infants’ facial expressions but also on their willingness to continue feeding.
The food consumed by the mother not only influences the subsequent tastes and preferences of her child, but will also profoundly affect normal growth and development during gestation. Ideally, women should enter pregnancy well nourished and continue to consume a well balanced and healthy diet throughout pregnancy to ensure the developing foetus is also well nourished. One area of particular importance is the role of dietary fats and in particular the role of omega-3 fatty acids. The adequate intake of omega-3 fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) in particular can increase gestation length and improve infant cognitive and visual performance. Maternal-to-infant transport of EPA and DHA during pregnancy and lactation is at the expense of maternal status, a process known as biomagnification, whilst omega-3 fatty acids are found primarily in fish, many pregnant women choose to avoid fish because of concerns about potential mercury and polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) contamination. However, given the importance that these fats play in brain development, women should stillmaintain adequate levels of omega-3, but from ‘safe’ sources. Purified fish oil provides an alternative source of omega-3 for pregnant women who do not eat fish and, along with their known health benefits and their role in normal growth and development, they may also provide flavour exposure that may influence the child’s taste for fish later in life. Omega-3 fats are naturally present in breast milk, although the amount varies considerably between individuals and the content is significantly influenced by maternal intake. It may be beneficial to continue supplementing during lactation to avoid depletion of maternal stores, which themselves have been directly correlated with the risk of developing post-natal depression. Certainly, the physiological demands of pregnancy and lactation put childbearing women at particular risk of experiencing a loss of omega-3 from tissues, including the brain, especially in individuals with inadequate dietary omega-3 intake.5
At birth, the gastrointestinal tract must be able to support a shift from parental nutrition (nutrition within the womb) to oral feeding and the development of a healthy gut is key to this transition step. Breast milk is by far the superior milk for infants, providing ideal nutrition and protection against infection. Indeed, breastfeeding (unlike formula feeding) not only provides the optimal nutrition but also provides a number of hormones (in particular colostrum in the first feeds) and growth-promoting peptides, such as, cortisol, epidermal growth factor (EGF), insulin and insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-I) that play a role in the immediate postnatal gastrointestinal development. Breast milk is also rich in oligosaccharides, which provide the fuel needed for colonisation of the developing gut flora that play a significant role in immune function, protecting the child from infection.
Breast milk certainly offers a child the best start in life nutritionally, and it is becoming clearer that the maternal diet may influence the long term health of our children. However, whilst influencing whether our children will ultimately eat their carrots or not, it must not be forgotten that breastfeeding also allows mother and baby to form a unique bond, both physically and emotionally. Finally, on the practical side, one of the biggest benefits of breastfeeding is the convenience of having meals ‘on tap’!
1. Beauchamp GK, Mennella A. 2011 Flavor perception in human infants: development and functional significance. Digestion. 83 Suppl 1:1-6.
2. Cooke L, Fildes A. 2011 The impact of flavour exposure in utero and during milk feeding on food acceptance at weaning and beyond. Appetite. 2011 May 27)
3. Mennella JA, Jagnow CP, Beauchamp GK. 2001 Prenatal and postnatal flavor learning by human infants. Pediatrics. 107:E88.
4. Forestell CA, Mennella JA. 2007 Early determinants of fruit and vegetable acceptance. Pediatrics. 120: 1247–1254.
5. Levant B. 2011 N-3 (omega-3) Fatty acids in postpartum depression: implications for prevention and treatment. Depression Research and Treatment. 2011:467349.