CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Babies who are breastfed exclusively for their first six months of life may be less likely to become picky eaters as preschoolers, according to a recent study of 129 mothers and their children.
Juhee Kim, a researcher at the University of Illinois, analyzed baseline survey data from the Synergistic Theory and Research on Obesity and Nutrition Group Kids (STRONG Kids) program to determine the implications of infant feeding practices on health behaviors and risks of obesity among 2- and 3-year-old preschool children.
Children breastfed exclusively for their first six months were 81 percent less likely as preschoolers to reject food, 78 percent less likely to develop a preference for specific food-preparation methods, and 75 percent less likely to develop food neophobia - the fear of trying new foods, Kim found.
Even infants who were breastfed exclusively only for their first three months were 59 percent less likely to develop a preference for specific food-preparation methods and were less likely to develop picky eating behaviors, demonstrating that "any amount of breastfeeding was better than nothing," said Kim, who is a professor in the department of kinesiology and community health.
Infants introduced to complementary foods before 4 months of age were 3.7 times more likely to eat a limited variety of foods later on. If introduced to complementary foods before 6 months, children were 2.5 times more likely to develop food neophobia as well.
Mothers were asked to report the age at which various foods - including breast milk, formula, cow's milk and other milks, as well as baby cereal, pureed baby food and chopped or regular table foods - were introduced to the children. Mothers also were surveyed about their breastfeeding practices, including the duration, whether they breastfed exclusively and if complementary foods except formula were introduced before their infants were 4 months or 6 months old.
The American Academy of Pediatrics currently recommends six months of exclusive breastfeeding and delaying the introduction of complementary foods until infants are 4-6 months old.
However, only 15 percent of mothers in the U.S. follow the exclusive breastfeeding recommendation, said Kim, who has led other studies that explored possible links between breastfeeding, day care usage and children's weight problems.
The current study is believed to be the first of its kind to document an association between adherence to the academy's infant feeding guidelines and the development of picky eating behaviors in preschool-aged children.
Picky eating behavior is a complex term with several dimensions, but includes consistent unwillingness to try new foods or rejection of particular food groups, and preferences for specific preparation methods, all of which can limit dietary variety.
"National dietary guidelines promote eating more fruits and vegetables, but oftentimes those are the foods least liked by children, especially young children," Kim said. "If mothers breastfeed exclusively for the first six months, the children are less likely to reject fruits and vegetables (when they get older)."
Breast milk gives infants opportunities to sample the flavors of all the foods consumed by their mothers, broadening children's palates so they appreciate a wider variety of flavors when they're weaned and eating on their own.
Although researchers aren't certain why children develop food neophobia and limited food preferences, Kim said it may be because their digestive systems aren't developmentally ready when solids are introduced, causing gastrointestinal discomfort or food allergies. Early negative experiences may explain why children in the study who began ingesting solids at younger ages, before 4 or 6 months of age, were more likely to become picky eaters.
Besides being a source of constant frustration for their parents and other caregivers, picky eaters face higher risks of health problems as children and perhaps as adults. They tend to gain less weight during their first two years of life, and more than 11 percent of them fail to thrive. A few recent studies suggested that food neophobia is related to the onset of obesity. If unhealthy eating patterns persist through childhood, children may be at increased risks of health problems as adults.
"Kids with picky eating behaviors are more likely to have problems with weight gain, either underweight or obesity," Kim said. "It has been proven that less breastfeeding and earlier weaning and introduction of solids are strong risk factors for later overweight/obesity."
Co-authors on the study were Jae Eun Shim, a professor at Daejeon University, South Korea, and Rose Ann Mathai, a doctoral student in nutritional sciences at Illinois.
The study appeared in the September 2011 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.