London - Women who have a varied diet in pregnancy may be less likely to have a child who is a fussy eater.
A decade of research has linked the smells and tastes that a baby is exposed to in its first few weeks and months of life with the foods and scents it grows to like.
In some cases, babies appear to get a taste for the foods their mothers ate while they were in the womb.
Researcher Benoist Schaal said: “During pregnancy the womb is relatively permeable and what the mother takes in goes in a certain dose to the foetus during a time when the brain is being formed, probably with long-term consequences.”
Dr Schaal, of Bourgogne University in Dijon, France, looked at the effect of odour in and out of the womb.
In one experiment, he gave some women aniseed-flavoured sweets and biscuits to eat in the last few days of pregnancy, while others ate their usual foods.
Once their babies were born, the scent of aniseed was wafted past their faces.
Those who had tasted or smelt aniseed in the womb turned towards it and seemed to smile, the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual conference heard.
The experiment did not check whether the children liked the taste of aniseed, as well as the smell.
But as scent is a major contributor to our sense of taste, this is likely, said the researcher. Other experiments show babies to react positively to smells if they have first sniffed them before birth.
But the effect may not always be beneficial to health, with a taste for cigarettes and alcohol perhaps also being set early in life.
An Argentinian study showed babies whose mothers drank during pregnancy licked their lips at the scent of alcohol.
The period during which a baby is weaned on to solid foods may also influence their tastes in later life.
Dr Schaal fed six-month-old babies boring or mixed diets and then looked at how they reacted to being given a new food.
For example, one group of babies was given little but pureed carrots to eat for ten days. Another was given carrots for a day, followed by a day of artichoke and a day of green beans, before starting back on the carrots again.
They were then tested on new tastes, such as pureed fish or ham.
Those given a varied diet took well to new foods, while those who were only used to carrots did not.
Dr Schaal said it was possible that eating a varied diet in pregnancy could cut the odds of the baby being a picky eater and that health policies on improving diet should focus on the start of life.
Clare Byam-Cook, a former midwife who has taught celebrities such as Kate Winslet how to feed their babies, backed the Frenchman’s theory, up to a point.
She said: “It seems to be the case that a mother who eats a lot of curries in her pregnancy can also eat lots when she is breastfeeding, because baby has got used to it.”
But she said the way the child is brought up is also important and persevering with the introduction of new foods will cut the odds of them becoming a fussy eater. - Daily Mail