Starting early – infants benefit from encounters with foods

Maryna Bogdanok, Lea Sprügel, Jasmin Peschke

Corresponding author: jasmin.peschke@goetheanum.ch

Published: 18.07.2024

Author information

Maryna Bogdanok

Agronomist and trainer in organic agriculture.

Lea Sprügel

Nutrition therapist.

Dr. oec. troph. Jasmin Peschke

Nutritionist and Head of Nutrition Department/Section for Agriculture, Goetheanum.

Breastfeeding and early experiences with vegetable diversity

It has been known for some time that breastfeeding helps prevent the development of allergies in later life (1). The ideal food for newborns is breast milk, which is precisely matched to their needs. The child connects to the world through breathing, sense impressions and food intake. Complementary feeding after four to six months can create a healthy relationship to foods at this early stage, and hence a basis for healthy eating. A number of studies show that breastfeeding and early experiences with a range of tastes can influence children's food preferences for many years to come (2). In addition, the repeated offer of a vegetable that the child does not yet like, increases its acceptance (3). In 2016, a study by Maier-Nöth et al. showed that these effects are stable and reliably last for up to six years (3). The results create a good basis for evidence-based recommendations that should help parents to lay down and encourage healthy eating habits in their children.

Maier-Nöth et al. looked at three factors (breastfeeding, variety of vegetables, repeated exposure) in 72 to 75 children in two regions (Dijon, France and Aalen, Germany). The data were collected at around the ages of 15 months, 3 years and 6 years. A distinction was made as to whether children were breastfed or fed on baby formula in the first few months, and whether a large range of vegetables was included in their food when weaning was started. The researchers also recorded the number of types of vegetable that the children ate and liked at each follow-up. In addition, the acceptance of vegetables that were new and unknown in comparison to the familiar ones was studied by carrying out eating and taste tests in the laboratory at the age of 6 years.

At the first examination time, at the age of 15 months, the breastfed children liked more vegetables than those who had been fed on baby formula. There was no difference between regions in this respect.

When the children were studied for the second time at the age of 3 years, the number of "vegetables eaten and liked" was significantly different between regions. The children in Aalen ate more vegetables and liked them more than those in Dijon This did not depend on early experience with the variety of vegetables nor the type of milk feeding.

Photo with toddler and healthy food

Photo: Lara Otterbach

At the third examination at the age of 6 years, it was apparent that children who had become familiar with a large variety of vegetables at weaning liked new vegetables more than children who had not had the benefit of a variety of vegetables. This was a significant effect. At this age there was no longer any effect linked to whether the children had been breastfed or had been given baby formula. There was also no difference between regions.

For the lasting acceptance of a vegetable that had originally been refused, it was demonstrated that children ate and liked this after it was offered repeatedly. 79% of 15-month-old children, 73% of 3-year-olds and as much as 57% of 6-year-old children continued to eat and like an initially unpopular vegetable.

In summary, the study showed that the willingness to try and then eat new and unfamiliar vegetables was significantly higher in those children who had got to know a large variety of vegetables when solid food was first introduced. This effect was also detected in breastfed children at the age of 15 months. This is likely due to the fact that breastfed children experience a large variety of different tastes through their mothers' milk. Every meal of breast milk is a stimulus of different senses such as smell, taste, touch and temperature/warmth. Children not only ingest a wider range of tastes via breast milk but also immunoregulatory substances such as antibodies, which promote the development of the child's immune system. This reduces the risk of developing an allergy in later life.

It can therefore be said that breastfeeding and early experiences with a variety of vegetables during complementary feeding evidently promote the acceptance of new vegetables during childhood. Repeated exposure to a vegetable that was initially disliked also has a positive effect. Children were offered an initially disliked vegetable not simply two or three times, but eight to ten times. It could be demonstrated that this multiple exposure reliably increased the consumption and liking for it up to 6 years of age.

Nutrition with allergenic foods reduces the risk of allergies

Several studies describe that, contrary to expectations, the early introduction of allergenic foods such as eggs, nuts and wheat in the first year of life is associated with a significantly reduced risk of developing a food allergy (4). In place of traditional complementary feeding with various baby foods, there is increasing use of the method of baby-led weaning, developed by the English midwife and breastfeeding expert Gill Rapley. When the child can sit and is curious about and ready for solid food, it is offered appropriate solid food, such as sticks of cucumber or steamed vegetable sticks at the family table, in order to become familiar with these. This approach enables the child to experience its environment through food and to find out what foods have to offer. In addition to the taste, they get to know the texture, colour, size and shape. The child discovers from the start what it is like to hold a strawberry in their hand in comparison to a carrot, and to have these in their mouths. The child encounters the foods in their entire form, and not just pureed into a paste. A gentle introduction to different vegetables can awaken curiosity and pleasure in eating. The child's senses are stimulated and this promotes physical development. If the foods are grown organically or biodynamically, the child encounters their authenticity and experiences a certain honesty, because their cultivation takes account of the balance between the production of mass and ripening. Baby-led weaning also develops motor skills, such as hand-mouth coordination. An important aspect is that the child itself decides the pace at which it wants to discover different foods. It has also been observed that children who are allowed to eat by themselves at an early stage, tend to accept a broad range of different foods (5). Meals eaten together and a particular mealtime rhythm allows the child to get to know its family's eating habits from the beginning. This is an important factor in the child's own eating behaviour and helps to develop a healthy relationship to eating and food. The encounter with different foods can be seen as an indirect encounter with the world, and promotes resilience. Supplementary food is the first time that a child gets nourishment that, unlike breast milk, has been grown on the earth. The child has to deal with this, developing its digestive system, gut microbiota and immune system. A healthy microbial colonisation of the gut helps to ensure that food is tolerated.

Despite all the positive observations, a child should not be overstimulated. Healthy development requires calm in which the stimuli can be "digested". If the child has an intolerance or allergy, it is counterproductive to offer it something that it cannot tolerate, and an excessive variety of foods can overtax the metabolism. The child should be carefully observed and its natural curiosity encouraged. The child should be introduced to the world of vegetables gently in order to awaken pleasure and to make healthy eating into a lasting experience.

Note: This article was first published on https://www.sektion-landwirtschaft.org/en/nutrition/articles/sv/starting-early-infants-benefit-from-encounters-with-foods (25.09.2023). It is republished with the kind permission of the authors.

Bibliography

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