Learning to eat: birth to age 2 y

Am J Clin Nutr. 2014 Mar;99(3):723S-8S. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.113.069047. Epub 2014 Jan 22.


During the first 2 y of life, development is rapid and includes dramatic changes in eating behavior. Individual patterns of food preferences and eating behaviors emerge and differ depending on the foods offered and on the contexts of feeding during this early period of dietary transition. In this review, we discuss evidence on ways in which early learning influences food preferences and eating behavior, which, in turn, shape differences in dietary patterns, growth, and health. Although the evidence reviewed indicates that this early period of transition provides opportunities to influence children's developing intake patterns, there is no consistent, evidence-based guidance for caregivers who are feeding infants and toddlers; the current Dietary Guidelines are intended to apply to Americans over the age of 2 y. At present, the evidence base with regard to how and what children learn about food and eating behavior during these first years is limited. Before developing guidance for parents and caregivers, more scholarship and research is necessary to understand how infants and toddlers develop the food preferences and self-regulatory processes necessary to promote healthy growth, particularly in today's environment. By the time they reach 2 y of age, children have essentially completed the transition to "table foods" and are consuming diets similar to those of other family members. This article discusses parenting and feeding approaches that may facilitate or impede the development of self-regulation of intake and the acceptance of a variety of foods and flavors necessary for a healthy diet. We review the limited evidence on how traditional feeding practices, familiarization, associative learning, and observational learning affect the development of eating behavior in the context of the current food environment. Areas for future research that could inform the development of anticipatory guidance for parents and caregivers responsible for the care and feeding of young children are identified.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Appetite Regulation
  • Child Development*
  • Energy Intake
  • Evidence-Based Medicine*
  • Feeding Behavior*
  • Feeding Methods
  • Food Preferences
  • Health Promotion*
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant Behavior*
  • Infant Nutritional Physiological Phenomena*
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Overweight / etiology
  • Overweight / prevention & control
  • Parenting