Q. I'm pregnant and plan to breastfeed. Can what I eat affect my baby's food preferences later on?
A. If you want your child to develop a taste for healthy foods, you can start right now during your pregnancy by eating them yourself. Food chemicals with distinct tastes and smells are transmitted to the amniotic fluid that cushions a growing baby; the fetus swallows this fluid and can sense the flavors. Infants are exposed to flavors through breast milk, which reflects the flavors of foods, spices and beverages in mothers’ diets. And studies suggest that babies can develop a taste for those familiar flavors when they’re exposed to them later on in solid foods.
Julie Mennella, Ph.D., a scientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, conducted a study in which pregnant women planning to breastfeed were randomly assigned to one of three groups. Women in all groups consumed 1¼ cups of carrot juice or water four days a week for three consecutive weeks during the last trimester of pregnancy and again during the first two months of breastfeeding. One group consumed carrot juice during pregnancy and water during lactation. Another group, the reverse (water, then carrot juice). The third group drank water both times. Later, when it came time to introduce the infants to solid foods, the researchers observed the babies as they were fed cereal prepared with water on one occasion and cereal made with carrot juice on another. After each feeding session, the scientists also asked the mothers to rate their babies’ enjoyment of the cereal.
When fed the carrot-flavored cereal, infants whose mothers had drunk the carrot juice while pregnant or breastfeeding displayed fewer negative facial expressions—the infant equivalent of “What’s that weird stuff?”—than the babies whose mothers had sipped water. These infants also appeared (according to their mothers, who were unaware of the scientists’ research question) to enjoy the carrot-flavored cereal more than the one made with water. “Prior exposure to the carrot juice made the taste familiar, and therefore more acceptable,” says Mennella.