The third of four articles in the Infant & Toddler Forum series focused on the development of feeding skills for your baby. This article looks at taste, texture and food preferences that have a significant impact on the types of foods that growing infants and young children are willing to eat. These preferences can often persist into adolescence and beyond.
Acceptance and Rejection
Newborn babies recognise face, sounds, smells and known tastes from birth. Soon after birth your baby will rapidly recognise the tastes and smells of milks. At four months, your baby can recognise food by taste and smell and quickly learn to accept new foods. Up until the age of two years, the variety of foods accepted gradually increases and then remains fairly constant until around eight years. The range of foods in a young child’s diet predicts their food choices and preferences in adulthood.
Before Birth – Birth
Your baby will be born with a sweet taste preference whereas all other taste preferences are learned through experience. Some infants however, will inherit a strong dislike to bitter tastes and certain food textures. Unfortunately many vegetables that contribute to a healthy, varied diet can have a bitter aftertaste.
New born infants can recognise tastes and smells that they have experienced before so some few taste preferences can be acquired in the womb based on foods that you eat when pregnant.
A preference for some strong tastes can also be learned from the taste of breastmilk and the foods eaten when you are breastfeeding. Your breastmilk can be flavoured by the food you eat, e.g. garlic. This does not happen, however with all foods that you eat.
During the Introduction of complementary food, your baby will quickly learn to accept new foods, therefore this period an ideal opportunity to introduce a wide range of tastes. Babies taste preferences come through experience, the earlier in this time window that your baby is offered food with a specific strong taste, such as vegetables, the more likely they are to accept the food, and to continue eating the food throughout childhood.
Infants begin to learn to accept foods that are of a more solid texture. The tongue and mouth skills that are needed to move this type of food to the sides of the mouth and then to the back of the mouth to swallow are learned through the experience of having solid textured foods given to them to eat. In the early stages of trying to eat more solid textured foods some infants may ‘gag’ on the lumps as they learn to deal with the foods appropriately.
Texture Acceptance and Progression
4 – 6 months
Can cope with pureed and mashed foods.
6 months onwards
Introduction of lumpy solid foods, mashed with soft lumps should begin.
Babies should now be able to cope with mash and harder lumpy solids, and will begin to chew. Most babies can chew without gagging at the age of 12 months.
Complementary foods with a soft lumpy texture should be introduced as soon as possible at around six months of age. If foods are introduced later than this, those foods are more likely to be rejected by your child and can lead to poorer acceptance of a varied diet in later childhood.
Babies begin to reject foods, based on the way that the foods look. By this age infants can point to foods that they like and say ‘no’ to foods that they don’t like.
Your baby will have learned to recognise by sight which foods they do not like. If disliked foods are touching or hidden under liked foods, this may lead to all of the meal being rejected.
20 months- 8 years
A strong neophobic response (fear of new foods) can occur. Toddlers will reject new foods and some foods that they have accepted before. This response is seen in all children to a greater or lesser extent. This strength of this behaviour is inherited. Children with neophobic parents are more likely to be neophobic themselves. The neophobic response gradually declines throughout childhood.
Your toddler’s food preference at this age is a good predictor of food preferences throughout life and one of the best ways of getting a toddler to eat or to try new foods is by eating the food in front of the child and making sure that you eat meals with your child.
14 – 16 months onwards
Toddlers will easily imitate adult’s eating preferences and at 3 years they will copy the eating behaviour of children of their own age.
What can you do?
- Give a varied range of foods to children under the age of one so that the infant learns to widen their categories of foods accepted.
- Gently encourage tastes that are new to the infant – and that might at first get a grimace response – by offering very small amounts of the food on subsequent days along with food that is already accepted
- Make sure that you start to offer textures solid foods from the age of six months