The term “picky” is thrown around all the time in parenting articles, but what does it really mean, especially when it comes to the first year of life? Picky or fussy eaters have strong likes and dislikes around what, when and/or where they eat. Here’s what to do — and why the common adage “let them grow out of it” isn’t the best advice.
Birth to 6 months:
Breast or formula feeding is baby’s primary source of nutrition. If your child is having trouble latching, maintaining the latch, fatigues easily, fusses during or after feedings, or if mealtimes feel stressful in any way, urge your pediatrician to find an expert to help you. Consultants certified in lactation are an excellent resource and often collaborate with speech language pathologists and occupational therapists who specialize in pediatric feeding.
6 months and starting solids:
The first year of life is packed with new experiences, and one of the most exciting moments for parents is watching baby take those first bites of purees or soft foods! Food isn’t just about taste — it’s a sensory experience like no other. Babies are programmed to explore the texture, gentle temperature changes, sight and even the sound of new foods as they squish what you’ve offered in their tiny fists. When food reaches the mouth, the aroma is especially strong both beneath the nostrils and when that aroma mixes with the taste buds. Smell plus taste is a completely new sensation known as flavor.
You’ll notice a variety of reactions from baby with each new flavor, including giggles, grins and shudders. She may gag occasionally as she learns to manipulate the new foods in her mouth. The gag reflex is there to help baby stay safe — but remember that it’s not foolproof. If your baby gags frequently at each meal or appears frightened by the gagging, consider it a red flag that may lead to fussy eating in the future. Early feeding experiences need to be positive, and repetitive gagging is never comfortable. Still, keep in mind that gagging is not choking. Typically, choking has little to no sound, and you’ll see a panicked look on baby’s face, drooling and/or her color start to change.
Always keep a close eye on baby while she’s learning to eat. If baby gags, try to keep a relaxed look on your face and wait calmly, letting baby manage the gag on her own. Afterward, offer a very tiny sip of water if you’re sure that baby is no longer having trouble with the food. The liquid will help wash away any tickly residue. If baby is not yet used to drinking water, try a sip of breastmilk or formula. (Babies can begin having small sips of water at 6 months of age, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.) The most important thing is to be sure that baby is calm and comfortable before taking a drink to ensure that no liquid accidentally enters the lungs (aspiration).
Early signs that baby is having trouble adjusting to solid foods and may develop picky eating habits or possibly a delay in feeding development include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Baby is not gaining weight
- Baby cries, turns away from the spoon or repeatedly swipes food off his high-chair tray
- Baby gags or vomits daily, even after a period of adjustment for new food experiences
- Baby eats only purees after he turns 9 months of age
- Baby appears to just squish chunks of soft food with his tongue and is not developing a simple rotary chewing pattern by 7 to 8 months of age
- Baby has not learned to bite into solid foods by 8 months of age
- Baby resists a variety of flavors and/or textures, sticking to just a few “favorite” foods
- Baby relies on breast or bottle feeding as the main source of nutrition after the first year, even though he gets “tastes” of solid food daily
- Baby does not appear eager to eat solid foods by leaning forward with an open mouth
- Baby has not yet learned to drink from an open cup (with parental help) or from a straw cup by 1 year of age and relies solely on bottle or breast for liquids
Why do babies develop picky eating habits in the first year of life? Most often, it’s because they are protecting their bodies and most importantly, preventing anything in their mouth from entering their airway by mistake. They may have immature sensory systems that cannot tolerate certain textures, tastes or gentle temperature changes. They may have delayed motor skills that hinder the necessary movement and coordination of the tongue, jaw and lips for feeding. They may have medical issues that have been undiagnosed that make eating uncomfortable, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease. No matter what the reason, if feeding your baby causes you or your child stress, be sure to talk to your pediatrician, who will refer your baby for a feeding evaluation. Don’t wait for baby to grow out of picky eating — because any stall in feeding progress is considered a feeding delay. Feeding is a developmental process, just like learning to crawl, walk and run. We want baby to meet all of his milestones, including feeding milestones, so that each day can be filled with yummy food and fun feeding experiences for both of you!
Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, is an international speaker on the topic of feeding babies, toddlers, and school-age kids. She is the co-author of the award-winning Raising a Healthy Happy Eater: A Stage-by-Stage Guide to Setting Your Child on the Path to Adventurous Eating (2015) and Baby Self-Feeding: Solutions for Introducing Purees and Solids to Create Lifelong Healthy Eating Habits (2016). The tips in her latest book, Adventures in Veggieland: Help Your Kids Learn to Love Vegetables with 100 Easy Activities and Recipes (2018) are based on the latest research and Melanie’s 20 years of success as a pediatric feeding therapist. Melanie’s advice has been shared in a variety of television and print media, including The New York Times, Huffington Post and Parents Magazine. Visit her at www.MelaniePotock.com for more articles, professional tips, and helpful videos to raise your adventurous eater!
The content provided in this article is intended for informational purposes only. It is not recommended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem without consulting a qualified healthcare professional. Always seek the advice of a qualified healthcare professional regarding any medical questions or concerns. See additional information.