Children are born with a preference for sweet flavours and have to learn to like other tastes, such as sour, salt and bitter flavours (1). Some children inherit a strong dislike for bitter flavours and unfortunately a lot of vegetables have a bitter after taste! All infants start to develop taste preferences from their experiences in the womb where the amniotic fluid is flavoured with the foods that their mother eats (2). So early experiences of feeding and food, including developmental, cognitive and social factors – these all help children to develop their food preferences.
In the first twelve months, babies generally accept new foods and their taste preferences rapidly develop. Initially they get used to different tastes and flavours and then they start to learn about different textures. At this stage, babies primarily learn to recognise the foods they like by sight (3). However at around 14 months, child start to reject foods based on how it looks and show a “disgust response” (3). At around 18-20 months, this disgust response peaks and is known as the “Neophobic phrase” (4).
Neophobia means “fear of food” and is a normal part of feeding development, however the strength of a child’s neophobic response will vary and can last up to 8 years of age. Children may start to reject food that they have previously accepted and are often reluctant to try new foods. They may reject a food if it does not look exactly like the food they know. For example, they may waffle down a whole Malted milk biscuit, but may reject a broken Malted milk because it does not “look” like the food they like. They may also start to reject foods they like if the food is touching or hidden under a new food. This “fussiness” can be a nightmare for parents, but it is in fact thought to have an evolutionary benefit – preventing children from eating poisonous foods or non-foods as they become more independent and explore. It is therefore a part of their cognitive development – each child has a set of preferred foods that they can recognise and know they have tried before. Any other food is viewed as a non-food or something to be treated with caution and so causes a disgust response.
Over time, children learn to try new foods by following a slightly different set of rules. Rather than just accepting a food on how it looks, they learn to recognise safe foods by watching other eating. At around 30 months, children also start to generalise and put verbal labels to food. So “a yoghurt” does not just mean a pot of strawberry fromage frais… but can mean a bowl of natural yoghurt, a pot of yoghurt with peach pieces in…etc…
By 24 months, your child’s food preferences will become relatively fixed and are likely to change little up to the age of 8 years (5). So what can you do help?
- Offering a wide range of tastes early on in weaning – both sweet and savory
- Offering a range of different coloured foods
- Encouraging your child to play and explore with different foods so they learn about how different foods feels, their textures
- Just because your child rejects a food 2-3 times, don’t be afraid to keep offering it to them – even if it is just to smell, look at and explore with their hands. Research indicates that offering a food 8-15 times, without putting any pressure on your child, usually results in acceptance of the food
- Include your child at family mealtimes and eat alongside your child so that they can see others eating. Try offering your child the same food as you are eating so they can see the food is “safe”
- Schwartz C, Issanchou S, Nicklaus S. Developmental changes in the acceptance of the five basic tastes in the first year of life. Br J Nutr. 2009 Nov;102(9):1375–85
- Mennella JA, Jagnow CP, Beauchamp GK. Prenatal and postnatal flavor learning by human infants. Pediatrics. 2001 Jun;107(6):E88
- Maier A, et al. Breastfeeding and Experience with Variety Early in Weaning Increase Infants Acceptance of New Foods for Up to Two Months. Clinical Nutrition 2008; 08 (002): 1010-1016.
- Pliner P, & Loewen E.R. Temperament and Food Neophobia In Children and Their Mothers. Appetite 1997; 28: 239-254.
- Skinner J.D. et al. Children’s Food Preferences: A Longitudinal Analysis. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 2002; 102 (11): 1638-1647.
Feeding Development factsheet at http://www.infantandtoddlerforum.org/