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Children’s taste preferences may be determined in infancy

Does this situation sound familiar? You are sitting at your dinner table with your baby. You are hoping, fingers crossed, that this time you can get your little one to eat the fruits and vegetables you have prepared for her. As your child continues to resist, she ends up throwing the food on the floor and an eager pet is the happy receiver.

Getting your baby to eat fruits and vegetables may seem like more work than it's worth, especially when it ends up going to the dog, but new research suggests that persistence may pay off.

In one of eleven recent U.S. follow-up studies published in the journal Pediatrics, researchers tracked the eating patterns of almost 1,500 six-year-old children whose mothers participated in a similar study in 2008. The original study assessed the eating behaviours of mothers and infants starting in the third trimester of pregnancy until the baby's first birthday. It found that babies who ate fruits and vegetables infrequently (once a day or less) were two and a half times more likely to eat fruits and vegetables infrequently at age six. Although not reported in the study, it seems logical that the opposite may also be true. Frequent consumption of vegetables and fruit in infancy (two more times per day) may lead to frequent consumption later in childhood.

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This emphasizes the importance of introducing a range of fruits and vegetables early, as well as continuing to offer them, even if baby rejects them at first. In fact, research suggests babies may need about ten exposures to a new food before they develop a taste preference. To make a food more appealing, you can try altering the texture you are offering. For example, if baby is spitting out pureed banana, maybe he will accept small pieces of chopped up banana instead. Parental role-modelling of fruit and vegetable consumption and avoiding coercing or forcing baby to eat fruit or vegetables are other strategies that can help.

Other recent research published in Pediatrics highlights the effect breastfeeding may have on a child's fruit and vegetable consumption. The findings suggest that babies who were breastfed for over a year are generally more likely to eat more fruits and vegetables and may have a healthier diet overall when they are older. Researchers think that amniotic fluid and breastmilk contain "tastes" from the mother's diet, which help babies develop taste preferences for food. Health Canada recommends exclusive breastfeeding to six months, with the introduction of iron-rich solid foods around this time.

Overall, this new research gives us additional insight into how taste preferences may be established in infancy and last throughout childhood. We still don't have all the answers, but breastfeeding and encouraging healthy eating in the early stages may create taste preferences for nutritious foods for the rest of your child's life.

Health Advisor contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging. Becky Blair is a registered dietitian working in public health and a spokesperson for Dietitians of Canada. She was a member of the joint working group who developed the revised Nutrition for Healthy Term Infant Guidelines.

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