One of the classic challenges of parenthood is getting your picky little eater to just “try a taste” of broccoli, when they know that ice-cream is waiting in the freezer. Every parent wants their child to establish good eating habits when they are young, but, it’s not always easy to know where to start. Fortunately, giving your child a healthy start may be easier than you imagine, because a lot of it starts with what you eat and your diet. Health Canada reminds us that a woman’s nutritional and overall health, before and during pregnancy, definitely influences the health of her developing baby.

During your second trimester your baby’s taste buds will start to develop. While your baby is in the womb, food flavours that you eat will make their way into the amniotic fluid and begin exposing your baby to those new and exciting tastes. This continues postpartum once you start providing your baby with breastmilk.

In fact, according to researchers, breastfeeding may be one of the best ways to influence your child’s eating habits. It’s an intriguing idea. But, can eating well while breastfeeding really help to establish a preference in our children for nutritious food? On the surface it sounds like a bit of an old wives’ tale – “if you want your child to like vegetables, eat more vegetables while nursing.” But, unlike many breastfeeding myths, there is actually quite a bit of evidence supporting this idea. Let’s look at the recent research about how flavours in breastmilk can shape a baby’s food preferences.

Breastmilk May Be the Most Intelligent Liquid Ever!

The full range of ingredients in human breastmilk is staggering. In some ways, the mysterious properties of breastmilk are still, well… mysterious. On the other hand, we are learning more about this powerful elixir all the time. For example, scientists are well on the way to documenting the immunological, nutritional, developmental and cognitive benefits of human breastmilk. So, the nutritional benefits of breastmilk are already well established. But, let’s get back to the question at hand – can breastmilk actually shape our baby’s food preferences?

One fascinating area of research highlights the way in which infants may be able to detect tastes in human breastmilk. In other words, your baby can actually taste what you are eating. Which is not surprising really, considering they started tasting those flavours while in the amniotic fluid, but, that’s another story! Now, this is obviously a few steps away from showing a “cause and effect” relationship. In other words, it doesn’t prove that eating one type of food will create a preference. But, it does indicate that our children can probably detect aspects of a food’s flavour that we consume during pregnancy and nursing.

Breastfeeding Lets Your Baby Experience Local Flavours

Recent research, summarized by Parenting Science, supports the idea that flavours from the mother’s diet are detected by her child during pregnancy and nursing. They also highlight that this, of course, would include local flavours and spices, which represent cultural and environmental preferences.

From an evolutionary and survival perspective this makes total sense. After all, if a baby is born in a community that lives by the sea, wouldn’t it be useful for them to have a preference for eating fish? Of course it would! While more research is needed, the scientists involved in this study were confident that a connection exists between a mother’s diet and her child’s food preferences. At a minimum, it is a good idea for moms eat nutritious food and Health Canada provides some guidance here.

Wean Your Baby on Carrot Flavoured Cereal

Researcher Dr. Julie Mennella, set out to validate if introducing certain foods into a mother’s diet could establish a dietary preference in her baby. She asked breastfeeding moms to drink carrot juice every day during the last three weeks of pregnancy and for the first two months of breastfeeding.

Then, when the infants were ready to eat solid foods, the researchers offered them a choice between plain cereal and cereal flavoured with carrot juice. Amazingly, when the babies were introduced to the carrot flavoured cereal, they had happier faces and enjoyed the flavour more – less nose wrinkling and head turning. According to Dr. Mennella, these results suggest that breastfeeding may help to form dietary preferences in our children. We still have a lot to learn in this research area, but, at least we are taking the first steps.

Should Parents Try to Control Tastes to Influence Baby’s Preference?

Research on this topic may suggest that parents should try to control the flavours that their children are exposed to. Mennella suggested that pre-schoolers are more likely to eat fruit if they were exposed to fruit flavours through breastfeeding. It’s certainly an interesting topic to discuss with your doctor or lactation consultant!

But, even if eating more vegetables while nursing doesn’t subconsciously teach your child to love carrots, it will almost certainly help you to stay healthy. Recommendations from Health Canada provide guidance on establishing healthy eating habits in your household which will almost certainly benefit your child as they get a little older.

Can Breastmilk Help With Allergies?

Another dietary question that many moms have is whether breastmilk can help prevent allergies. Unfortunately there is no simple answer on this, as there are generally two types of allergic reactions. The first is called Hereditary Allergic Disease, and is most often associated with family genetics. Think of someone who is allergic to sunlight. When the allergy is genetic based, you may be out of luck.

The second is Non-Hereditary Allergic Disease, which means that the immune system decides that something in the environment is bad and attacks it, triggering an allergic reaction. Examples of this could be dust, pollen, cat dander, and peanut proteins.

Because allergies are complicated, you should definitely talk to a health professional if you have any questions, and especially before embarking on new endeavours like immersing yourself in the vacuum cleaner dust bag in order to expose you infant to all those potential dust allergens. That said, there are a few things to consider when it comes to the connection between breastfeeding and your child’s allergies.

For starters, breastmilk may help to reduce the rate of non-hereditary allergic disease in children, by exposing their immune systems to common “allergens.” New research suggests that avoiding certain foods, like peanuts, may actually increase the chances that your infant could develop an allergy to them, since they will not be exposed to the nuts proteins that are known to trigger allergic reactions. Literature summaries show that breastfeeding, by itself, may help to reduce environmental allergy symptoms. Please keep in mind that this is not true for hereditary allergic issues, which are related to genetics.

Moms today are super aware of the importance of helping their children to establish healthy eating habits. The research shows that breastfeeding your child may be a great place to start. Not only will it establish healthy habits in your family, but, it may even help your child to develop a preference for healthy foods.

Have you discovered that your baby loves a food that you ate when you were pregnant or breastfeeding? Do you think that what you eat when you are breastfeeding makes a difference? Please add your thoughts and questions in the comments section below or join the conversation on the Medela Canada Facebook page.

Disclaimer: The information in this article is provided for informational purposes only. Please consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet during pregnancy or while nursing.

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