How to Influence Your Baby’s Food Choices

The rumors are true: Some kids actually do eat healthy foods … and enjoy them! So how did their parents teach them that? Surprisingly, it might have had something to do with what mom ate during pregnancy.

Imagine your toddler willingly eating every healthy food that you offer. Bunches of broccoli, stacks of spinach, loads of lima beans … all consumed without a fight. The notion that any child has a natural inclination toward healthy foods might seem far-fetched, but some scientists suspect that there’s a very important window of opportunity for a mother to instill good eating habits in her children. Research is underway to determine how a woman’s diet during pregnancy might influence her offspring’s food preferences later in life. What they’re discovering is encouraging.

Teeny, Tiny Taste Buds

Nine weeks after conception (during pregnancy week 12), an unborn baby develops its first taste buds. Connections between the taste buds and the brain—which makes perceiving flavor in food possible—aren’t made until a little later in the fetus’s development. Scientists are unsure how functional these first taste buds may be, but they do know that unborn babies can swallow. In adults, taste buds make it possible to differentiate between salty, sweet, bitter, and sour tastes. Yet most scientists believe that taste buds account for only a small percentage of what most people think of as flavor: your ability to detect the subtleties in a certain food and enjoy it.

The Nose Knows

The real story lies in what an unborn baby may be smelling due to what the mother is eating. Flavor begins with the nose. “‘Flavor’ is a term that is used by the lay public,” explains Dr. Richard Costanzo, PhD, professor of physiology and otolaryngology/head and neck surgery at the Virginia Commonwealth University. He says that scientists’ definition of flavor is different; they think of it as a complex arrangement between mouth, nose, and brain working in concert to enjoy a certain food. And when it comes to “figuring out” the flavor, it’s the nose that does most of the work, not the taste buds.

A simple test will give you an idea of how important smell is in determining the flavor in food. The next time you’re eating something—an apple, a cookie, or even a latte—plug your nose. What’s the flavor? You may be able to tell what the food is by the texture or the temperature, but you won’t be sensing much in terms of flavor. Nasal pathways must be open so that small cells within the nose, called olfactory receptors, can pick up on odors and pass the information on to the brain.

A New World of Smells

As an unborn baby develops, nose plugs block the nasal passages until four to six months after conception. Once the nose plugs fall away, the fetus can take in the amniotic fluid and “smell.” According to Dr. Gary K. Beauchamp, PhD, director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, “Odors are dissolved in amniotic fluid and this bathes the olfactory receptors.” Like the air we breathe, amniotic fluid is constantly circulating through the nose of the fetus, immersing it in a world of smells.

While an unborn baby obviously can’t decipher what the smells are, it does become accustomed to certain odors. Researchers in France found that newborns later recall smells from the womb. Three-day-old babies were offered two pads—one saturated with amniotic fluid collected from their own mothers, and the other from another baby’s amniotic fluid. The behavior of the newborns indicated that they preferred the familiar scent. Moreover, scientists have observed that familiar odors have a soothing and relaxing effect on the babies. After all, babies first identify their mothers by smell.

Garlic, Carrots, Ethanol, Tobacco

A variety of substances can change the odor of the amniotic fluid. For instance, in one study, scientists gave pregnant women garlic pills 45 minutes before they were to undergo an amniocentesis. After collecting the samples, the garlic had significantly changed the smell of the amniotic fluid. Other odors—such as carrots—can infuse the amniotic fluid, too, as can harmful substances, like ethanol and tobacco.

Pass the Carrots, Please!

Another study concludes that you can give an infant a taste for carrots by introducing them early. Women drank carrot juice while they were pregnant and later, while nursing. Researchers then considered their babies’ reactions to carrot-flavored cereal versus babies whose mothers had only drank water. Children of the carrot-drinking moms were more accepting of the carrot-flavored food than the other group of infants.

Eat Well, Eat a Variety

Researchers like Dr. Alan Hirsch, MD, at the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago point out other potential benefits to eating well and eating a variety of foods during your pregnancy. “Babies will likely be less neophobic (afraid of new things),” says Dr. Hirsch. He suggests that babies may be more willing to try new things—new foods, in particular—because of experiences in utero.

Dr. Hirsch explains that mothers who practice good, healthy eating habits during pregnancy followed by healthy food choices while nursing give their children a head start in forming good habits, too.

So the next time you sit down for a meal, consider that you really are eating for two. The food choices you make during your pregnancy may be the same ones your children will be making for themselves before you know it, so bring on the broccoli!

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