The food a woman regularly incorporates into her diet when pregnant or breastfeeding can alter her child’s food preferences.
FOR years, doctors assumed that babies were born without any knowledge of the outside world. But newborn babies learn many things while still in the womb.
Studies reveal that they can distinguish their mothers’ voices from those of other women and show preference for speech rhythms that match the language of their mothers.
In fact, recent research is offering clues that what a woman eats during pregnancy not only nourishes her baby in the womb, but may shape food preferences later in life.
Food preferences are largely cultural. Yet studies have shown that what women eat while pregnant and breastfeeding might affect their child’s taste preferences later in life.
Babies learn from the womb
Studies suggest that although a mother’s healthy and varied diet during pregnancy can give her child a headstart to healthy eating; she can also pass on flavour preferences to their children, both in the womb and through breast milk.
Back in the 1980s and 90s, researchers showed that the amniotic fluid that surrounds the growing child in the womb can be flavoured by the mother’s diet.
In one study, scientists at the University of Missouri, USA, testing the maternal diet/offspring taste theory in controlled experiments, found that mothers who drank carrot juice during the last trimester of pregnancy had babies who, once they started weaning, made fewer negative faces when fed carrot juice.
Junk food guzzling
Another 2012 study found that pregnant rats that ate lots of junk food and had diets high in fat, salt and sugar gave birth to babies who preferred these foods and disliked healthy foods.
Dr Olusoji Jagun, a consultant obstetrics and gynaecologist, Olabisi Onabanjo University Teaching Hospital (OOUTH), Sagamu, Ogun State, said it is possible for a mother’s diet to affect her baby’s taste, but not her baby’s food preference.
He said babies of women that eat junk foods rather than healthy meals gain more weight. “If a woman is eating more of complex carbohydrate, the baby is not going to gain as much weight as when the woman is eating simple sugars,” he declared.
He pointed out also that “soon after a bottle of sugary carbonated drink, there is going to be an increase in foetal activity compared to the person that eats eba because babies feed basically on simple sugars; the digested ones.”
Dr Jagun, however, ruled out the possibility that a pregnant woman’s diet will affect her baby’s food preference.
“If a baby is born in Nigeria and taken to America, he is going to get used to the kind of food they eat in America. The same is the case with a baby born in America, but raised in Nigeria.
“We cannot take it from the context of the mother eating say carrot in pregnancy, and so the child when born will also like carrots,” he declared.
Food myths abound
The medical expert said in Nigeria, women are cautioned against intake of food items like okra and eggs due to many cultural beliefs.
Many say that if a woman eats okra in pregnancy, then her baby is going to be salivating. Also, it is said that if she eats lots of eggs, her baby will end up being a thief. Dr Jagun, however, declared that these are myths and as such cannot be substantiated.
“Okra has a lot of iron; egg has a lot of protein. They are very good for health. They do not determine or affect their child’s taste preferences later life or else we parents who eat eggs; our children are going to be thieves. It is not true. So if you take it from the context of the mother eating a balanced diet, the baby is going to grow very well.”
Food intake and disease links
Professor Olukayode Akinbami, a consultant paediatrician, Niger Delta University Teaching Hospital, Yenagoa, Bayelsa State, pointed out that the quality of mother’s diet can affect the growth of her unborn baby as well as her chances of developing some diseases.
According to Akinbami, children who inherit genes for some diseases in the right environment end up with the disease flaring up.
“If there is an underground allergy in the gene of the mother, of course there will be an element of it in the baby as well,” he said.
Eating healthy while pregnant
Professor Akinbami, remarking that the quality of a mother’s breast milk can be affected by the quality of her diet, declared that there are some allergens that the mother may be able to suppress which her baby could not.
He declared: “When in the mother’s womb, the environment therein is the only that affects the baby. But outside the womb, the environment now has more allergies that will induce reaction, and then the baby will come down with an allergic reaction.”
Nonetheless, he added that the diet of a nursing mother can affect her baby. “Eating refined food or that with a low fibre content like bread could contribute to constipation in her nursing baby.
“We usually promote high fibre diet in children because it will help ensure easy passage of faeces. A child cannot strain to pass out faeces like an adult.
“That is why we promote eating balanced diet to ensure that the breast milk is adequate for that baby. We preach exclusive breast feeding in the first six months of life.”
Food and drink that we ingest are broken down into small molecules by our stomach and intestines, and are then absorbed and transferred to our blood stream.
During pregnancy, molecules in the mother’s blood stream, including those that may produce a smell, can be passed to the bloodstream of the unborn baby through the placenta and umbilical cord.
But observational studies support the theory that what women eat while pregnant and breastfeeding might also affect their child’s taste preferences later life.
In a study in rats, pups exposed to alcohol in the womb were more attracted to water laced with alcohol. The same has been shown in many animal models.
Also, dairy farmers, in the 1960s and 70s, grazed their dairy cows on wild garlic and onion to produce milk with distinct flavours. Human babies whose mothers drank a moderate amount of alcohol during pregnancy responded more positively to the smell of alcohol than unexposed babies. This preference may carry into later life.
Prenatal alcohol exposure is associated with alcohol problems in young adults, even when factors such as genetics, environment and socioeconomic status are taken into account. This suggests that exposure in the womb may change taste perception in later life.
What you taste, your baby tastes
Experts say that a baby still in the womb starts swallowing amniotic fluid at about 10 to 12 weeks of pregnancy. They swallow hundreds of millilitres a day. It is thought that the senses of taste and smell are well developed by 21 weeks, well before they will eat or drink on their own.
So, the changing flavours of the amniotic fluid caused by the mother’s diet are likely detected by the baby, and may help programme the baby’s future eating habits.
It is not yet clear how a mother’s diet during pregnancy may influence her baby’s taste. Also, more studies still need to be done to know how long this works since as a child ages, additional cultural, social and economic factors can influence his/her taste and diet.