Some babies embrace new foods while other babies reject them, but what explains these behaviors? In an August 2017 study published in Child Development, Moding and Stifter examined whether new foods elicited approach-withdrawal responses in infants and toddlers.
Approach-withdrawal refers to a person’s tendency to either approach or withdraw from new stimuli and is a reflection of temperament. Temperament influences how a person interacts with the world, and it could help us understand why some children are more or open new foods.
The researchers initially recruited 80 babies and 80 primary caregivers. All but one of the caregivers was a mother. Furthermore, 75 of the babies were girls. The researchers then followed mother-baby dyads and collected data from laboratory visits when the babies were 6, 12, and 18 months old.
At 6- and 12-month visits, the babies were introduced to new foods and new toys. At 18 months, the toddlers were taken to a "risk room," where they could interact with four objects: a tunnel, stairs next to a large mattress, a large black box with painted eyes and teeth, and a gorilla mask placed on a table. Reactions of the children were recorded. Mothers were present during the experiment.
Moding and Stifter found that at 12 months of age, children who were more exuberant about new toys were more enthusiastic about new foods as well. Conversely, babies who had more negative reactions to new toys were relatively inhibited around new foods and less interested in partaking. Moreover, the approach a baby had to new foods at 12 months was a predictor for the baby's approach to new objects at 18 months, during the toddler years.
Notably, associations between a baby’s approach to new toys and new foods at 6 months were not observed. This finding was expected because previous research suggests that children become inhibited at around 12 months of age.
According to the researchers, this study has real-world implications. By better understanding a child’s temperament, a parent of a picky or inhibited eater can better learn how to introduce solid foods into the diet.
"[P]arents of older infants who tend to show lower levels of approach to novel stimuli, such as new toys, should be prepared for their infants to exhibit lower levels of acceptance in response to new foods as well … Parents of low-approach infants would benefit from knowing that their infants may be likely to reject novel foods based on their temperament but that they can assist in their infants’ eventual acceptance of these foods if they persist in offering them on multiple occasions."
In other words, if your child is resistant to engaging new toys, then your child may also be less accepting of new foods. Furthermore, by trying several times, you can get a child to open up to these new foods. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
Bohn, K. Food fight: Children’s temperaments help predict dinnertime struggles. Penn State News. August 2, 2017.
Moding, KJ, Stifter, CA. Does Temperament Underlie Infant Novel Food Responses?: Continuity of Approach–Withdrawal From 6 to 18 Months. Child Development. August 2, 2017. [e-pub ahead of print]