Imagine a world without finicky eaters, where even infants readily devour broccoli, kale, garlic, and onion. Sound too good be true? It appears that the key is to start out young–very young, as in before birth. More and more evidence is showing that taste and flavor preferences, especially those for healthful food selections like vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, start in utero and continue forming in the first months of breastfeeding. This positive impact on food preferences and willingness to try new fare is likely to continue into childhood and beyond.
The nuances of every morsel a mama puts in her mouth pass into the amniotic fluid. The growing baby bathes and drinks in the fluid, in essence sampling foods from the outside world. From those first tastes, children are then more likely to crave similar foods when they begin eating solid foods in infancy. In addition, developing babies pick up on every spice, seasoning, and flavor from the food that their mamas eat, creating a palate that is open to a wide variety of foods. Thus, eating a healthy, varied diet translates into having a child who does the same. On the flip side, women who consume highly processed, fat-laden foods and/or a fairly bland diet throughout pregnancy could be more likely to have offspring with similar eating preferences.
This palate-shaping isn’t just taking place in the womb. After birth, a mama’s breast milk also possesses elements and flavors from the foods she eats, which then are passed on to baby. Breast milk becomes an ever-changing taste sensation, preparing babies for the cuisine that is to come. The most formative time to shape tastes happens between months 2-5 after birth — yet another great reason for exclusive breastfeeding during the first 6 months or so.
This makes sense from the simple logic that, “If I give you A, you will like A. If I give you B, you will like B.” Also, from an anthropological standpoint, an infant needs to be primed for the culture that it is being born into. For most, if not all, families, societies and ethnic groups, food is at the forefront. Basically, if you want to fit in, you eat what the group eats.
Now, are you destined to have a child who only eats french fries and ice cream if that’s all you ate throughout pregnancy and breastfeeding? I think it depends on whether or not you continue to eat french fries and ice cream as your child grows. A huge influence on what a child prefers to eat comes from what food is available in the home and how a child’s role models (namely parents) eat. Looking at my own study group (i.e. my 4 children) I definitely see evidence of my prenatal eating habits and how they have influenced my children. While none of them are “picky eaters,” my 8-year-old, who was a product of a less-than-stellar diet including lots of pasta with a few veggies sprinkled in, definitely has more of a preference for junk food and is less adventurous when it comes to food. (I used to get a cheeseburger after each of my prenatal appointments and now he insists on one after every visit to his pediatrician. Coincidence?) My 18-month-old, whose amniotic fluid was doused with unending salad and spicy food, definitely prefers vegetables over mac & cheese and eats crushed red pepper without batting an eye. Our family’s shift towards healthier eating in general has made a huge impact on what everyone eats. We all eat whole grains and vegetables–though some members of the family take a bit more convincing than others.
The bottom line? Eat as healthfully as you can, as soon as you can, and pass that wonderful gift on to your child!
Here are some references to studies on the subject:
Bayol SA, Farrington SJ, and Stickland NC. 2007. A maternal ‘junk food’ diet in pregnancy and lactation promotes an exacerbated taste for ‘junk food’ and a greater propensity for obesity in rat offspring. Br J Nutr. 98(4):843-51.
Bilko A, Altbacker V, and Hudson R. 1994. Transmission of food preference in the rabbit: The means of information transfer. Physiology and Behaviour 56: 907-912.
Capretta PJ, Petersik JT, Steward DJ. Acceptance of novel flavours is increased after early experience of diverse taste. Nature. 1975;254:689–691.
Cooke LJ, Wardle J, Gibson EL, Sapochnik M, Sheilham A, Lawson M. Demographic, familial and trait predictors of fruit and vegetable consumption by pre-school children. Public Health Nutrition. 2004;7:295–302.
Gerrish CJ, Mennella JA. Flavor variety enhances food acceptance in formula-fed infants. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2001;73:1080–1085.
Hepper PG. Adaptive fetal learning: prenatal exposure to garlic affects postnatal preferences. Animal Behavior. 1988;36:935–936.
Mennella JA, Beauchamp GK. Maternal diet alters the sensory qualities of human milk and the nursling’s behavior. Pediatrics. 1991;88:737–744.
Mennella JA, Jagnow CP, Beauchamp GK. Prenatal and postnatal flavor learning by human infants. Pediatrics. 2001;107:1–6.
Mennella JA, Johnson A, Beauchamp GK. Garlic ingestion by pregnant women alters the odor of amniotic fluid. Chemical Senses. 1995;20:207–209.
Mennella JA, Turnbull B, Ziegler PJ, Martinez H. Infant feeding practices and early flavor experiences in Mexican infants: an intra-cultural study. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2005;105:908–915.
Nicklaus S, Boggio V, Chabanet C, Issanchou S. A prospective study of food preferences in children. Food Quality and Preference. 2004;15:805–817.
Schaal B, Marlier L, Soussignan R. Human foetuses learn odours from their pregnant mother’s diet. Chemical Senses. 2000;25:729–733.
Skinner JD, Carruth BR, Wendy B, Ziegler PJ. Children’s food preferences: a longitudinal analysis. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2002;102:1638–1646.
Sullivan S, Birch LL. Infant dietary experience and acceptance of solid foods. Pediatrics. 1994;93:271–277.
Varendi H, Porter RH, Winberg J. 1996. Attractiveness of amniotic fluid odor: evidence of prenatal olfactory learning? Acta Paediatr. 85(10):1223-7.