A baby’s nutritional environment actually begins before conception, because the health and nutrition of the mother-to-be can have repercussions for her baby. Dietary deficiencies in a pregnant woman can affect the growth and development of her fetus. In general, though, a woman’s body shows a remarkable capacity to compensate the fetus with any nutrients in short supply in the expectant mother’s diet. This compensation can come, however, at the expense of the mother’s stores of these nutrients in her own body. A pregnant woman should make every effort, then, to eat a well-balanced, healthy diet throughout her pregnancy, both for her sake as well as the baby’s. The same goes after the baby is born.
These days, mothers could use some help in that effort. While women today don’t control family mealtimes as much as they did in the past, mothers still usually serve as de facto house nutritionists and primary diet planners. In the US, though, the state of family nutrition is in real trouble. Though factors such as cheap and ubiquitous fast food play huge roles in the problem, the bottom line is that childhood obesity is at epidemic levels and parents need to do a better job of instilling healthy dietary habits. As a nation, we can clearly see the toll that poor nutrition takes, on children as well as adults. Effective solutions will need to involve the efforts of a great many people and organizations, but much of the responsibility will ultimately rest with parents.
That’s a lot of pressure, as well as fuel for mother guilt. Especially when it turns out that a mom can influence a baby’s food likes and dislikes without being aware she is doing it. “There’s been a lot of research from the Monell Institute in Philadelphia on the fact that flavors are passed from the mother to the infant through breast milk and even to the fetus via amniotic fluid,” says Sharon Donovan. “And if you think about it, when mom goes out and eats Kung Pao chicken, those spices pack a lot of flavor.” And when it comes to taste, familiarity usually results in acceptance.
Julie Mennella is one of the Monell scientists who have been doing this research. One European study had shown that if mother rabbits were fed juniper berries, their bunnies also loved this meal. Mennella repeated the rabbit experiment with human mothers, substituting carrot juice for juniper berries, and found the same result. Similar research has been done with garlic, onions, vanilla and, in France, with anise flavors.
Some of this research also suggests that breastfed infants are more apt to appreciate novelty in flavors. The reason might be, explains Donovan, “because during the course of lactation, the infant experiences changes in the texture and composition of the breast milk and so might also be more accepting later in terms of new foods and new tastes.” Since toddlers can sometimes be picky eaters, moms can perhaps give their kids a head start by eating a large variety of healthy foods themselves.
Food of Love
Food is always about more than nutrition—even for infants. Food stimulates the senses of an infant and in the process plays a role in neurological development. As babies mature, there are also emotional dimensions to food that reinforce feelings of comfort and security. Food becomes a part of the baby’s emotional and social development.
One of the ways that food insinuates itself into our emotional lives is through our noses. We know that odor is a powerful behavioral trigger. In fact, in many mammal species smell is the most powerful of the senses. Some mammalian mothers and offspring imprint on each other on the basis of odor. Human babies do not rely on their sense of smell to that extent and yet odors still play an important role in the mother-infant bond.
“I think it’s very important to recognize that the olfactory bulbs in the nose are actually extensions of the hypothalamus,” explains Deepak Chopra. “They are actually neurons, and so the sense of smell is an extension of the hypothalamus, which is part of the limbic system, which orchestrates autonomic function, hormonal balance, feedback loops, self-regulation, and memory. So all of these elements are intimately linked to each other.”
No wonder, then, says Chopra, “that you smell baking bread, and you can immediately be transported to the kitchen of your grandmother and the picnic that you had 40 years ago, or that the scent of a certain perfume can bring back memories of an old romance. Smell is very intimately linked to emotion. For an infant, the smell of the mother is an amazing source of comfort.” Food for thought.
Mother-Baby Bond: The Biology of Love (VIDEO)
Mother-Baby Bond: The Biology of Love
Establishing New Life
Nurture & Protect
Growth & Sensations
Adapting & Anticipating
Joyous Mom, Joyous Baby
Your Baby Enters the World
Nourishing Body & Bond
Mother & Teacher
A Mutual Gaze
From Bump to Bundle
Related Health Centers:
Infant Nutrition Health Center, Mother-Baby Bond Health Center, Mother’s Milk Health Center, Monthly Infant Development Calendar Health Center,Weekly Pregnancy Calendar Health Center