How Babies’ Eating Patterns Affect Kids’ Diets Later On

What infants eat could have a lasting influence on their weight and food preferences throughout childhood, according to a new collection of studies that suggest babies' eating patterns in their first 12 months of life affect their diet for years to come.

In a supplement published in the journal Pediatrics this week, researchers presented new data from a follow-up study of children -- now age 6 -- enrolled in the so-called "Infant Feeding Practices Study II," a collaboration between the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Roughly 1,500 mothers took part in the follow-up survey.

A major finding from that data was that children who breastfed longer tended to have lower odds of ear, throat and sinus infections at age 6. They also tended to consume water, fruit and vegetables more frequently when they were 6 years old, and drank fruit juice and other sugar-sweetened beverages, like soda, less frequently.

Conversely, children who drank sugar-sweetened beverages, including juice, during their first year had double the odds of continuing to do so at age 6. Those who drank sweetened drinks at least three times a week between ages 10 and 12 months also had twice the odds of being obese at age 6 compared to children who drank none -- a noteworthy finding, given that current national estimates show up to one-third of children and adolescents in the United States are either overweight or obese.

The authors propose several reasons for the apparent association. Babies who drink juice, for example, may simply be consuming more calories overall, which can lead to weight gain. Alternatively, children who drink sugary beverages at young ages might also be more likely to eat fast food, and to be relatively inactive -- both risk factors for higher weight.

A separate study in the new Pediatrics also found that children who rarely ate fruits and vegetables in their first year were also less likely to eat them once they were school-age, suggesting long-term likes and dislikes are shaped very early on.

"There are some studies that show food preferences might be shaped as early as the fetus stage -- even while women are pregnant," said Marina Chaparro, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics who was not involved in any of the research cited here. When asked if she thought the findings indicate that children's preferences are molded very early on, or if it's more likely that parents are simply locked into feeding their children the same types of food year in and year out, Chaparro said it was "probably a little bit of both."

What is clear from the findings is that parents should not give their children sugar-sweetened beverages until they are at least 1 year old, Chaparro urged. After that, parents should limit their children's consumption to no more than 4 to 6 ounces of 100 percent fruit juice per week -- though whole fruits and vegetables are preferable, she said.

Chaparro added, however, that parents who may have given their children sugary beverages when they were younger, or who have experienced problems breastfeeding, should not interpret the new studies to mean they've negatively affected their children's eating habits, weight and health for life.

"My No. 1 tip [for parents] is be patient and don't give up," said Chaparro, who encouraged parents to introduce a child to a new healthy food 10 to 15 times, in various forms, in order to get them used to it. "When a child is 1, parents tend to internalize the faces he makes when he's trying something new, like broccoli, as 'he doesn't like it.' But that's not necessarily the case."