Wondering why your little one loves sweet potatoes but spits out the spinach? One reason may be that babies have more tastebuds than adults do, so the flavors they taste seem more intense. Here’s more on babies’ taste buds, plus tips for encouraging a future of nutritious eating for your little one.
How do the taste buds work?
Taste buds are sensory cells on our tongues. We have different types of taste buds that detect different flavors – sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami (savory). The taste buds work with our sense of smell to send the brain information about the flavors we eat. This is how we taste different flavors of food.
Babies have more taste buds than adults
Babies’ taste buds develop while they are in the womb. This lets them taste some of the foods their mothers eat, as molecules from those foods make their way into the amniotic fluid. And a baby may even start to develop preferences for the flavors their mother eats during pregnancy – preferences that last once they’re outside the womb.
When they’re born, babies have more tastebuds than adults – a lot more. On average, babies have two to three times the taste buds that adults have. Babies have around 10,000 tastebuds while the average adult has around 5,000.
This makes babies a lot more sensitive to different tastes than you are – all flavors are more intense to babies than they are to you. And this explains why babies seem to react more strongly to different tastes.
Why your baby has a sweet tooth
The total amount of taste buds you each have isn’t the only big difference between your and your baby’s taste buds. Babies and children have more of the type of taste buds that detect sweet foods, compared to teens and adults.
This means infants and young children tend to prefer sweet foods, and have a stronger preference for sweet tastes than adults do. Chalk this one up to evolution. Kids’ taste buds are hardwired to prefer sweet foods because sweetness was nature’s way of indicating high-calorie, high-energy foods that aid in growth. A “sweet tooth” also may prime your baby to enjoy breastmilk.
Of course, nowadays many foods have added sugars and artificial sweeteners, which serve as empty calories that babies don’t need. You should avoid feeding baby these foods, as they take up room in baby’s diet that you could fill with nutritious choices. But there’s good news, too – the “sweet” preference means baby’s more likely to enjoy fruits, as well as sweet veggies like corn, sweet potato, and butternut squash.
Why your baby might not like bitter foods
Does your baby make a face when you give them spinach, or seem disgusted by broccoli? This is another area where evolution’s to blame. In nature, bitter things are often poisonous, and their bitterness serves as a warning – “this could be toxic, don’t eat this!” Babies’ taste buds are especially sensitive to bitter flavors because this keeps them from eating something that could harm them (especially if they move out of sight).
Unfortunately, this sensitivity to bitterness might mean your child doesn’t like the taste of leafy greens and broccoli, which have flavors on the bitter side. But if your baby doesn’t like their first tastes of these green powerhouses, don’t give up. It often takes 10 or more tastes for baby to get used to a new food. Keep introducing these veggies, and baby will learn to love them.
What about salt? Can babies taste that?
The taste buds that let babies taste salt don’t develop until baby is around 4-5 months old. That same timing is when – or just before – babies become developmentally ready for solid foods. And once baby develops those taste buds, they’ll have more “salty” taste buds than adults do. This means they’ll also have a preference for salty foods. But this doesn’t mean babies need added salt in their diet.
It’s best to feed babies foods low in sodium. Don’t add any salt to foods, because babies will get all the sodium they need from a healthy diet. If babies eat too much salt, they might prefer unhealthy salty foods in the future.
How to encourage nutritious eating habits?
Baby’s first 1,000 days are key to their growth and development – and those first few years are when lifelong eating habits are formed. If your little one is exposed to a diverse diet with lots of healthy foods, they’re more likely to choose and love those foods throughout their life.
Train their super tastebuds to love healthy foods with these tips:
- Prioritize feeding fruits and veggies in a rainbow of colors.
- Include foods high in protein, iron, and zinc.
- Give your baby dairy foods like yogurt and soft cheeses (just don’t give milk as a drink.)
- Feed baby whole grains instead of refined grains.
- Avoid foods with added sugar, and limit higher-sodium foods.
- Expose baby to lots of different flavors. Babies can even learn to love more sophisticated flavors, like whitefish, kale, and quinoa, if you start feeding them those foods early and often.
- Introduce a variety of safe food textures, including mashed, thick and lumpy textures, especially as baby becomes more confident in eating solids.
- Introduce baby-safe forms of common allergen foods, like peanut, egg, cow milk products, tree nuts, wheat, and soy.
- Try new, healthy foods alongside your little one regularly. When your little one sees you enjoying a food, they’re more likely to enjoy it too.
- Tell your little one what you like about the healthy foods you eat – talk to them about the flavor and the texture. This makes them eager to try, since you've already shared your love for the foods.
- Expand baby's palate by adding spices, like turmeric and cumin, into their meals. Babies can have spices that older children and adults enjoy.
- Let your little one watch you make their food.
- If baby doesn’t seem to like a food, don’t give up! Keep feeding them that food. It may take 10 or more tastes for them to start enjoying it, so stay persistent.
All health-related content on this website is for informational purposes only and does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the advice of your own pediatrician in connection with any questions regarding your baby’s health.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.
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