3.1 The Role of Food In Early Development

BreakThrough! The role of Food in Early Development

“Eating behavior” describes the relationship we have with food almost from the moment we’re conceived. Beginning in utero, a mother’s diet during pregnancy influences a child’s preferences, metabolism, and developmental features. During this time nutrition affects development of the central reward processes in the brain, and can lead to a lifelong preference for fatty and/or sugary foods [19, 20]. At birth when we’re suddenly exposed to new sensations; (noise, light, touch, temperature, and odors) our primitive senses are overwhelmed. Most of us cry out in protest and what happens? …someone immediately puts something in our mouth, a breast, bottle, (or finger) to pacify and nourish us.

Over the next few weeks, the emotional connections (and attachments) between unpleasant sensations, our cries of displeasure, and the comfort provided by oral soothing are reinforced for life! Later as we start to crawl, we learn that having something in our mouth provides comfort when we’re afraid, hurt, or tired. As our curiosity emerges, we discover that oral stimulation not only provides relief from frustration but at times, boredom. Yes, boredom…why the heck else would we stick our toes (or everything else) in our mouth?

For many of us, having something in our mouth (whether it takes the form of a thumb or lollipop) becomes our primary “go-to” behavior that provides relief from unpleasant experiences, emotions, or sensations. We can’t talk about what we want, so oral reward becomes a default means to satisfy other unmet needs. When we think about development from this perspective, it’s not surprising that as we mature, we continue to turn to food or other oral stimulation (such as smoking, vaping, or chewing gum) to relieve (dis)stress.

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