The development of a baby’s food likes and dislikes

by Dr Lucy Cooke. Understanding the taste preferences that babies are born with – and how infants learn to like (and dislike) different flavours.

Baby looking up and being fed bottle

Introduction

All babies are born with a liking for sweet tastes and a dislike of bitter and sour flavours. You can see this quite clearly from their facial expressions when they are given these flavours to try!

Scientists have suggested that there are very good reasons why babies developed these tendencies. As a general rule if something tastes sweet, then it probably has lots of nutrients and calories in it and if it tastes sour or bitter, then it may contain toxins. In prehistoric times, when food wasn’t always plentiful, it was important to eat as much high calorie, nutritious food as you could lay your hands on, and to avoid any foods which might present a risk of poisoning.

Together with these innate preferences, babies’ experiences with flavours (good and bad) shape their unique pattern of likes and dislikes. The more a baby is exposed to a flavour, the more familiar it becomes and the more it is liked.

So how are babies exposed to flavours before they start eating solid foods - and what can you do to encourage your baby to like a wide range of tastes and flavours?

How to make a magic moment

The best thing you can do to help your baby to learn to enjoy lots of different tastes and to make weaning as enjoyable and easy as possible, is to eat lots of different healthy foods during pregnancy. If you choose to breast feed, go on trying to eat as varied a diet as you can. The more flavours your baby experiences in these early days, the more open they’ll be to new experiences with food later.

Extra information

Whilst in the womb, babies swallow amniotic fluid - as much as a litre a day by the time they are ready to be born! The flavours of the foods eaten by mothers can be transmitted this way. For example, in one study, babies whose mums drank carrot juice in pregnancy, liked carrot puree better at the weaning stage than babies whose mums drank only water.

Similar results have been reported in studies of breastfeeding mums - showing that babies who have been exposed to flavours through breast milk, accept foods more readily later on.

Not all flavours are detectable in breast milk, but here are some we know about: garlic, carrots, mint, and blue cheese! There are lots of good reasons to consider breastfeeding and this is another not only do breastfed babies accept foods more readily at weaning but they also tend to be less fussy or picky than formula-fed babies when they are toddlers.

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Top tips

  • Babies are programmed to like sweet tastes and dislike sour and bitter tastes.In the womb, babies are exposed to the flavours of their mother’s diet in amniotic fluid.Breast milk is also flavoured with the foods that mums eat.A varied diet for mothers in pregnancy and during breast-feeding can help babies to be more open to flavour experiences when they start eating solid foods.

Expert opinion

Research has shown that a varied and healthy diet in pregnancy and during breastfeeding is not only good for mum’s health, but also positively influences her baby’s future food preferences.

Dr Lucy Cooke, Psychologist (specialising in children’s eating behaviour)

Parent's tale

My mum told me to offer small amounts of different foods when I was weaning my child.

Rachel, from Crewe

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