Our sense of taste receives information through thousands of tiny bumps on the tongue that we know as taste buds. Our taste buds can detect five basic flavors: Sweet, salty, sour, bitter and savory. Tasting other nuanced flavors requires the help of our sense of smell.
Before we explore how the sense of taste develops, let’s take a look at why it’s important.
Our sense of taste helps us:
- Determine if something is safe to eat — One sip of sour milk and we avoid drinking potentially dangerous bacteria. A bitter taste also sets off alarm bells, keeping us from ingesting potentially poisonous substances.
- Enjoy food — Enjoying food motivates us to eat, which is biology’s way of making sure we get energy and nutrients.
Development & The Sense of Taste
A child’s first taste buds appear on his brand-new tongue when he’s still in the womb. There, he swallows amniotic fluid, which is continually flavored by what mom eats and drinks.
A newborn can taste sweet, sour, bitter and savory, but not salty (that develops when he’s around 4 months old). He prefers sweet, which may be biology’s way of ensuring nourishment by attracting him to breastmilk. Like amniotic fluid, breastmilk is also continually flavored by what mom eats and drinks.
Around age 6 months, little ones are ready for solid food. They use their taste buds, sense of smell, and sense of touch to learn about different flavors, textures, consistencies, and temperatures of food.
In toddlerhood, children may enter a picky phase. You can read about why pickiness in toddlerhood is so common here.
Your Role in Shaping Your Child’s Taste Preferences
Biology and genetics play a role in taste preferences, but so do you! Studies show that the flavors a child tastes from the womb through early childhood shape later food choices. Here’s what that means for you:
If You’re Pregnant
You may be able to expand your child’s palate from the get-go by eating a variety of foods. Studies show that babies prefer the tastes of certain foods their mothers ate during pregnancy.
If You’re Breastfeeding
Because your baby can taste your food through your breastmilk, you can expose him to lots of flavors. Research shows that children who were breastfed tend to be less picky. This may be because they experienced a variety of flavors early on. If your infant drinks formula, you can still shape his palate when it’s time for solids.
If You’re Starting Your Baby on Solid Food
The two keys when starting solids are: Offer variety, and don’t give up if he rejects something. Experts say you may have to enthusiastically encourage him to try “just one bite” up to 15 times before he finally accepts it.
If You’re Feeding a Picky Toddler
As we mentioned, it’s common for toddlers to go through a picky phase. If that’s where you are, here’s a big list of strategies for getting through it while still encouraging a varied palate.
Lastly, if your child consistently gags while eating, or rejects certain flavors, textures, consistencies, or temperatures of food, he may be having trouble processing the sensory experiences of eating. Consider checking in with your pediatrician or a pediatric feeding specialist for guidance.