What do babies eat? A lot depends on mom

"Dietary patterns are harder to change later if you ignore the first year, a critical period for the development of taste preferences and the establishment of eating habits," says Xiaozhong Wen. (Credit: Jenny Cu/Flickr)

What a baby eats has a lot to do with their mother’s background, according to a new study that shows food preferences start early.

You have to be at least two years old to be covered by US dietary guidelines. For younger babies, no official guidance exists other than the general recommendation that mothers exclusively breastfeed for at least the first six months.


A new study on the eating habits of American infants at 6 months and 12 months old—critical ages for the development of lifelong preferences—shows that the dietary patterns of children varies according to the racial, ethnic, and educational backgrounds of their mothers.

For example, babies whose diet includes more breastfeeding and solid foods that adhere to infant guidelines are from families with a higher household income—generally above $60,000 per year—and mothers with higher educational levels ranging from some college to post-graduate education.

“We found that differences in dietary habits start very early,” says Xiaozhong Wen, assistant professor of pediatrics at University at Buffalo.

Obesity predictor?

Studying the first solid foods that babies eat can provide insight into whether or not they will develop obesity later on, he says.

“Dietary patterns are harder to change later if you ignore the first year, a critical period for the development of taste preferences and the establishment of eating habits.”

In the study, published in the journal Pediatrics, babies whose dietary pattern was high in sugar, fat, and protein or high in dairy foods and regular cereals were the children of mothers whose highest education level was some or all of high school, who had low household income—generally under $25,000/year—and who were non-Hispanic African-Americans.

Both the higher sugar/fat/protein pattern and the higher dairy pattern resulted in faster gain in body mass index scores from ages 6 to 12 months for the babies.

Fries and ice cream

Babies who consumed larger amounts of formula, indicating little or no breastfeeding, were more likely to be born through emergency caesarean section and enrolled in the Special Supplemental Nutrition program for Women and Infant Children (WIC). One possible reason for high formula consumption in this group is that WIC provides financial assistance for formula purchases.

Some of the unhealthy “adult foods” eaten by 6- and 12-month-old babies include candy, ice cream, sweet drinks, and French fries.

“There is substantial research to suggest that if you consistently offer foods with a particular taste to infants, they will show a preference for these foods later in life,” Wen says. “So if you tend to offer healthy foods, even those with a somewhat bitter taste to infants, such as pureed vegetables, they will develop a liking for them.

“But if you always offer sweet or fatty foods, infants will develop a stronger preference for them or even an addiction to them. “This is both an opportunity and a challenge. We have an opportunity to start making dietary changes at the very beginning of life.”

Slower bone growth?

Babies whose diets consisted mainly of high fat/sugar/protein foods also had slower gains in length-for-age scores from 6 to 12 months.

“We’re not sure why this happens,” Wen says, “but it’s possible that because some of these foods that are high in sugar, fat or protein are so palatable they end up dominating the baby’s diet, replacing more nutritious foods that could be higher in calcium and iron, therefore inhibiting the baby’s bone growth.”

The research is based on a subsample covering more than 1,500 infants, nearly evenly split between sexes, from the Infant Feeding Practices Study II conducted by the US Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2005 to 2007.

In that study, mothers reported which of 18 different food types their 6- and 12-month old babies ate in a week. Those data were then used to develop infant dietary patterns.

Source: University at Buffalo