Food Rejection in Infants

Baby rejecting foodSneakys

Why bub says ‘Thanks, but no thanks’? Is this the beginning of picky eating?

It is important not to confuse food rejection with the dislike of a food. There are many reasons why babies may turn away from food; often dislike has nothing to do with it. The information below is designed to answer some of the questions about why babies may refuse foods. Picky eating in the toddler and preschool years where a child refuses to eat certain foods such as vegetables is a common stage that most children grow out of in their own time.

Beginning and progressing through the introduction of complimentary foods can be fun (hilarious at times), frustrating, confusing, exciting, rewarding and sometimes terrifying. But it is also an important aspect of developing your child’s life-long skills in healthy eating and socialisation. Your role is immense, but don’t overlook the power of a baby!

Why does a baby reject a food?

There may be many reasons why a baby is rejecting a food. The appearance, smell, texture of the food in their mouths, and of course the taste sensation – any one of these can be off-putting. Other reasons could include feelings of unwellness, teething, and mechanical issues related to chewing, moving food around the mouth and swallowing. The reasons can be varied.

Inherently, babies appear to have a preference for sweet and salty foods. It is wise to avoid offering sweeter foods such as fruit over more bitter foods such as vegetables. We suggest progressing through vegetables and offering them as often as is practical each day. Start on fruit only once baby has a good repertoire of vegetables under his or her belt.

Many parents report fussiness with food texture, which is often as a result of baby being offered smooth-textured food for too long as an infant. It seems that progressing from soft foods to coarse, textured and lumpy foods is really important when it comes to later eating habits.

There also appears to be a relationship between the duration of breastfeeding and picky eating. Breastfed bubs generally are less likely to be picky eaters because they are exposed to a wider array of tastes via breastmilk (Galloway et al., 2003). Another study found that parents of picky eaters tended to offer new foods less often (3-5 times) than parents of children who weren’t that fussy. Apparently, new foods should be offered between 10-15 times to improve your child’s acceptance of new tastes and textures. (Carruth et al., 2004).

Why doesn’t my baby like soilds?

Numbers mean a lot to us, how much does your baby weight, what percentile is he or she one, how old are they, when did you start and so on. While we know now that about six months is the ideal time to try baby on solids, some bubs just can’t be tempted. That’s okay. Moving from a liquid diet to a textured diet of food isn’t always an easy one. Aside from the strange tastes and textures mum is adamant you will enjoy, you also have to learn to move the ‘stuff’ about your mouth and try swallowing it. Babies need to develop the mechanisms in their mouths in order to adapt to solids too.

So if your bub seems to be gagging excessively or just down right uninterested in your lovingly made solids that is okay. You could try baby with a baby feeding mesh (pop some avocado or banana in) which are also fabulous for babies who are teething, or let baby suck the food of the spoon as apposed to spooning it into babies mouth. Try some different foods such as sweet potato, but be a little mindful of babies preference for sweet and salty when it comes to fruit early on. Also there is no harm in take a rain check and trying baby again in a few days.

If things just don’t get better and baby is 7 months’ish then see a health professional for more advice.

Getting off to a good start

Consistency is one of the most important aspects of parenting. When introducing a new food, try to ensure it is given in a familiar place, saving old favourites for new or novel situations. So when you are eating out, take a favourite food rather than attempt to introduce a new one.

Don’t confuse rejection with dislike, and being persistent is also important. If a food is rejected, try it again (up to 10-15 times in some cases). There can be many reasons why bub hasn’t accepted it first time around and allowing them to have another go (without any fuss) is a sure way of improving the outcome. You can try freezing and then taking out small amounts to offer a number of times over the day or week, to save on time and cost.

Also keep in mind that babies can vary the amount of food they eat from one meal to the next. Sometimes this is a consequence of the energy density of a particular meal which has filled them up. Sometimes too, a baby will wolf down a meal then reject it the next day. Though confounding, this is all quite normal.

How babies learn to eat

Our understanding of what a baby can eat and when is not only based on the development of their digestive and immune system but their oral-motor development. The World Health Organisation defines four phases in the introduction of ‘complimentary foods’ defined by baby’s motor development:

  1. Stage one is getting baby used to eating from a spoon, using pureed foods once or twice a day.
  2. Stage two is becoming accustomed to texture because of improved motor skills.
  3. Stage three is the introduction of lumpy texture and thick consistencies and again improved motor skills allowing finger foods.
  4. Stage four is self-feeding and nearing family meals.

A 6 month old begins to consciously suck from the breast or bottle. Around 7 months, bub will be making chomping motions with their mouths and even showing when they are ready for another mouthful right down to when they show you they have had enough. By 8-9 months, baby will shortly start to chew food (even those bubs without teeth are adept at chewing). Around this time babies can open their mouths and begin to use their upper lips to take food from the spoon. At 10-12 months, baby will be gaining a great deal more fluid from sipper cups and while their tongue may still protrude on the bottom of the cup, this just helps their stability. By one year they are able to maintain a good biting action (depending on their teeth). By about a year and a half they are quite adept at keeping food and drink well and truly in their mouths.

The importance of introducing ‘lumpy’ foods

It has been found that babies who are not exposed to lumpy foods may be more likely to develop fussy eating habits later on. Therefore, it is important to give babies of between 6 to 9 months a variety of foods. This helps prevent picky eating in later years. Introduce mashed over pureed foods around 8 to 9 months, and then at 9 months pieces of cooked (soft) vegetables and finger foods (see also our fact sheet on starting solids).

Suggestions for coping with food rejection

Don’t force or coerce a baby to eat a food they are rejecting. Try to set up a good meal-time routine and also avoid snack-eating too close to main meals, as main meals tend to be more nutritious.

Remember that food rejection is a normal behaviour for almost all toddlers and preschoolers. Meal times should always be family-orientated and enjoyable. Do not overestimate the influence of togetherness during meals for a child’s overall development. It is amazing how much a bub will be influenced by what is going on around them. This includes distractions, and don’t forget that they are always learning from you so be sure to set a good example. Take the plate away when they have finished without a fuss; they have plenty of time to try it again.

Ways to reduce food rejection

Don’t coax, beg or trick – it may backfire on you and cause more strife. Take it gently, don’t rush your child through their meal, teach them to eat slowly. It takes up to 20 minutes for the brain to tell the body that it has had enough; this will also avoid overeating.

Whenever possible, ensure your child does not eat alone. Introduce new foods in a positive family environment; we know that a relaxed, communicative and happy atmosphere helps foster positive eating habits. And eating in front of the TV is not advisable. We strongly suggest you make the meal and people the centre of attention.

Just because a food has been rejected, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try offering it again. As mentioned above, sometimes it takes numerous attempts before your child becomes accustomed to – and likes – new tastes and textures.

What do you class as an eating problem?

Occasionally a bub may have problems with eating. If any of the following occur, or if you are concerned, seek professional assistance.

  • If bub vomits frequently, particularly if it is associated with pain or discomfort. This does not include normal ‘spitting up’.
  • Problems moving from soft textures to coarser, lumpier foods and difficulty chewing. Doesn’t include habits from the over-reliance on commercially prepared foods which can be overly soft.
  • Where baby has ongoing problems swallowing food often with choking and or gagging, particularly where this is have a negative effect on baby’s health and development.
  • Excessive mouth-stuffing or storing of food in the mouth for long periods (this does not include the overindulgent baby who just likes to get in as much food at once). Instead look more for the tendency to pass the food from the mouth to the throat.
  • Recurring or upsetting reactions such as skin reactions which may be a sign of an allergy or intolerance.
  • Persistent diarrhoea as this is a major factor in the failure to thrive in many infants and should be resolved as quickly as possible.
  • Persistent constipation which can cause a great deal of stress and discomfort and should be investigated.
  • Where you feel the issue is behavioural.
  • Where any of the above are causing you anxiety or you feel unable to cope.

Where do I go for help?

The first port of call is generally your local doctor who would in many cases refer you to either a paediatrician or a testing unit in a hospital (as in the case of a suspected allergy or intolerance).

Much of today’s guidelines on the introduction of foods are based on oral-motor ability. In other words, is your baby able to move certain types of food – such as coarse and finger foods – around their mouth and prepare it for swallowing? This is why speech pathologists are commonly called upon to help with feeding problems. A speech pathologist can assess your baby and help you and bub to progress through the stages of complimentary feeding. Speech pathologists may also be able to help with things such as drooling, problems with drinking from cups and straws, and where bubs are determined to jam food into their mouths.

The reality

Sometimes you can do everything right, textbook fashion, and still end up with a fussy-eating toddler. Don’t overlook a little one’s own personality and freedom of choice. Life is a mix of both our inherent patterns, including personality and motivation, and our environment. One we can control but the other we must work with.

Remember it’s up to parents and carers to offer nutritious food for children to choose from!

This information has been provided by Leanne Cooper from Sneakys baby and child nutrition. Leanne is a qualified nutritionist and mother of two very active boys.