Infancy is not usually a time when parents are much concerned about obesity in their child. After all, there are so many other things to worry about, especially for new parents. However, science is beginning to understand more about our food habits and when they develop with studies revealing a closer connection to food than we once thought.
It is not surprising to any parent to learn that even young infants pay close attention to what other people are eating in order to get a sense of what is pleasurable to eat. How many times have you tried to force a smile through a particularly bland spoonful of green mush in order to encourage baby to take a bite?
But science is demonstrating that the smallest among us have the ability to discern the difference between what is a matter of cultural tastes and what is actually disgusting. A study by the University of Chicago found that infants pay close attention to when people of a single linguistic group disagree about what food is good, indicating they are surprised the adults don’t agree. They also tend to pay close attention when adults from different linguistic groups agreed on the same food choice. According to the scientists, the significance of the study is the realization that infants are vigilant toward what foods might be dangerous and expect all cultural groups to avoid them while they anticipate different language groups will have different tastes.
In addition, scientists at the University of Buffalo have discovered fussy babies who take a while to calm down might be more likely to become obese in later years. The reason for this is that these children tend to turn to food as a reward and a comfort more than babies who are easily soothed with a little cuddling. The study asked parents to assess their infant’s personality based on a detailed questionnaire and had the infants push a button to receive a reward – either food or a non-food item such as extra cuddles, music, a snippet of cartoon, or a toy. The more times a baby was willing to push the button to get the reward, the more it was determined they were motivated by that reward. Consistently, it was the fussy babies that would work harder for food.
What both studies tell us is that it is important for parents of even very young children to model good eating habits for their children in order to improve their chances at a healthy lifestyle. Instead of food or a ‘treat’, offer different rewards such as trips to the playground, a favorite movie or time with a friend. Meanwhile, you can also encourage your children to be more flexible in their food choices by exposing them to different cultural groups more often.