Earlier this week, I talked to my husband and kids, who are keeping the fires burning in Ohio while I’m visiting family in California. All of them were aggrieved. My husband was planning to fix broccoli and noodles for dinner. Both boys were insisting that they would not eat it and furthermore never had liked broccoli. Never mind that two reliable witnesses (both of their parents) have seen them eat it with gusto! The standoff ended when the broccoli was discovered to have both mold and bugs.
You might imagine that this was simply an instance of children being picky and ornery. You would be wrong. New research shows that I am to blame!
When I saw the headline on the medical news wire Ivanhoe – “Pregnancy Diet Predicts Food Choices of Children” – I figured it would insinuate that mommy is at fault. But the actual article was much worse. It managed to blame mothers directly in its very first sentence:
If you’re a mother to a finicky child, then you may be to blame for his or her picky taste. A new study conducted at the University of Colorado School of Medicine uncovers the possibility that a mother’s diet during pregnancy can both familiarize the unborn baby with specific scents and tastes and directly influence what the child will later prefer to eat or drink.
“This highlights the importance of eating a healthy diet and refraining from drinking alcohol during pregnancy and nursing,” lead researcher Josephine Todrank was quoted as saying. “If the mother drinks alcohol, her child may be more attracted to alcohol because the developing fetus ‘expects’ that whatever comes from the mother must be safe. If she eats healthy food, the child will prefer healthy food.”
I’m dizzy with those leaps of logic. How did we jump straight from food to alcohol – the kryptonite of mother-blaming? And how many children are attracted to alcohol, anyway? Yes, fetal alcohol syndrome is a serious problem among the offspring of binge drinkers. I don’t see a lot of kids clamoring for a glass of Merlot. In fact, we’ve let our kids taste beer and wine, when they expressed curiosity, just so they could discover that it tasted “pooey” to them.
Read a little farther and you learn that Todrank et al. tested their hypothesis on newborn mice. For better or worse, mice don’t have much of a culinary culture. They aren’t tempted by the toys in Happy Meals. Nor are they exposed to my delicious vegetarian chili. Even in terms of the mouse lifecycle, one wonders whether the pups acquired a broader range of tastes as they grew. Also, mother mice are never told to drastically limit their diet while breastfeeding due to a colicky or restless pup.
My firstborn child tolerates much more spice than I do. He eats chard and Thai curry and Kalamata olives with gusto. My second son? He’d live on candy, breakfast cereal, hard-boiled eggs, Kraft mac-n-cheese, and more candy if we’d let him.
If this study has any applicability to humans, you’d expect to see the same pattern in every family: the firstborn should be a foodie, while subsequent children – conditioned by the relatively bland diet that families often adopt while feeding a toddler – should be pickier. You’d also expect the children of my spice-loving friends to be omnivores, yet many of them are pickier than my younger son.
It may well be that the biological effects on taste and smell that Todrank et al. found in mice have some applicability to humans. If so, it’s heavily filtered through culture. As parents generally know, young children usually have much more restricted tastes than their parents. I, for one, forced myself to eat broccoli during pregnancy even though it triggered nausea – and look where it got me!
Can we stop with the mother-blaming already? Most women consume a reasonably well-balanced diet during pregnancy. The few who don’t are usually either poor or plagued by hyperemesis gravidarum (that’s medicalese for uncontrollable barfing). Let’s not make mothers feel guilty because they failed to eat their brussel sprouts.