Delving into Early-Life Influences on Child Eating Behaviors

A young Asian mother in a striped shirt at a counter with her baby. The baby is reaching for a piece of fruit in a bowl on the countertop.

Children’s appetitive traits—eating styles that reflect their responses to external influences and internal hunger and satiety signals—are partly heritable and partly influenced by environmental factors such as parental behaviors. Yet relatively little is known about early-life influences on these traits.

Recent work by researchers in the Social and Behavioral Sciences Branch investigated links between early-life maternal feeding behaviors and food exposures with appetitive traits at age 3.5 years. Led by Leah Lipsky, Ph.D., and Tonja Nansel, Ph.D., the team analyzed data from the Pregnancy Eating Attributes Study (PEAS) and follow-up Sprouts study

In the study population, parents who frequently fed to soothe during their child’s infancy were more likely to have a permissive feeding style—one in which the parents have loose reins on what a child eats and their access to food—by the time the child was 2 years old. Both feeding to soothe at age 12 months and permissive feeding at age 2 years were linked to more emotional overeating, more emotional undereating, and a greater desire to drink by age 3.5 years.

Early-life food exposures also affected children’s appetitive traits. Later introduction to fruits was linked to more emotional overeating and undereating in early childhood. Children who were introduced to vegetables later and fed fruit less frequently fruit at age 2 years were more likely to be fussy eaters by age 3.5 years.

Overall, the findings indicate that parent feeding behaviors and early life food exposures affect children’s emotional eating and food fussiness. This suggests the potential for early interventions to have long-term impacts on children’s appetitive traits and diet quality.

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