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Friday 26 June 2020

Baby Tastes (Things We Don’t Know about Pregnancy Series #22)

Do your baby’s tastes depend on what you ate when they were in the womb?

Apparently, you can taste foods in amniotic fluid and breast milk – certain distinct flavours such as carrot, vanilla, mint and garlic, anyway. These flavours can be detected in breastmilk as little as half an hour after eating, and adults can even smell and identify them.

However, not all flavours are believed to pass through amniotic fluid or breastmilk, and scientists still have the job of exploring which are strong enough. Weirdly, these discoveries were made when dairy farmers selectively fed cows wild garlic and onion in the 60s and 70s, claiming it gave their cheeses a distinct flavour. And it seemed it did. This is just one wacky way scientists have explored flavouring cheeses, but to find out more about that, check out our blog post on the topic.

Taste training

So can you change what your baby likes to eat according to your own diet[1]? Researchers think you can. Afterall, babies tend to be happy with the food from the culture they belong to (and this makes evolutionary sense). Vegetarians find meat unpleasant, the Japanese like all things fishy, and some cultures are much happier with hot and spicy foods than others.

It all comes down to exposure. The more you try food and the younger you are when you start trying it, the more natural it is to like it. And when best to start than pre-birth? The logic is, if you eat lots of veg, your baby will be less reluctant to eat their greens, or so scientists predict.

Smell is the main source of flavour perception. Restaurant Antica Roma (CC0 Public Domain) via Pixabay


As the foetus develops

Ed Uthman via Wikipedia Commons.
The growing foetus develops a mouth and taste buds between weeks 8 and 14 of pregnancy; these taste buds connect up to sensory neurons in the brain and code for the basic flavours sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami. Smell, the main source of flavour perception, develops next, forming fully by around 21 weeks of pregnancy[2]. This lets the unborn babies detect around a trillion different odours!

Further sensory development continues after birth. Babies may even have a wider distribution of taste buds than adults do, including on their tonsils! They seem to be evolved to particularly like sweet flavours (maximising calorie dense foods), dislike bitter flavours (helping them avoid toxic foods), and especially enjoy breast milk (handy).

Around 6 months old, babies will start moving onto solids, and this is when you find how your taste training has worked out!

Of course, other effects, like their genetics, their level of interest in food, the texture of the food, and how easy they find it to pick up will also come into play, making baby feeding hard to assess. Remember, food and food preferences are a complex interplay of biological, social, and environmental factors. But remember, if all else fails, babies like copying, so you might find taste training goes full circle: they like what you eat during pregnancy, then you have to like what they eat during the early months!

This is our last post in the pregnancy series, but if you’ve missed any we definitely recommend you check out our full article, or go back to the first post in the blog series!

why don't all references have links?

[1] Ventura, A. K., & Worobey, J. (2013). Early influences on the development of food preferences. Current biology, 23(9), R401-R408. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2013.02.037.
[2] Bushdid, C., Magnasco, M. O., Vosshall, L. B., & Keller, A. (2014). Humans can discriminate more than 1 trillion olfactory stimuli. Science, 343(6177), 1370-1372. doi: 10.1126/science.1249168.

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