Why do babies refuse to eat?

Whether you’re baby is newborn and you are just browsing information, or whether you are starting to think about weaning your baby and you want to know how to get it right, or if you have already run into difficulties with the weaning stage you are likely to find this blog useful. So I hope to be able to give you the answers to some of your questions:

Is my baby ready for weaning?

How do I start weaning?

Why is my baby refusing food?

Why has my baby suddenly stopped eating?

Is my baby ready for weaning? / How do I start weaning?

As an NHS dietitian I will always recommend NHS UK for parents / carers who are looking for information on when and how to start weaning their baby. Information on this can be found here. Where I come in is if your baby has any health or medical concerns that may require them to wean earlier or later than usual, or in a different way to other babies. Please get in contact if you would like personalised advice on when or how to wean your baby.

Why is my baby refusing food?

So you’ve finally got to the point of weaning, all the readiness signs are there, you’re prepared and excited to start and you’re hoping your baby shares that excitement………. then they point blank refuse what you’ve made. Or maybe they’ve started weaning and have been doing really well with their food, and suddenly stop eating. Babies refuse to eat for many reasons, some of which are a perfectly normal part of their development, so try not to worry and read on.

Preference for sweet

Breast milk is sweet and fatty which is why babies are born with a preference for this so that they seek out the breast to feed. It is an innate response for survival. This is why you might find that your baby will eat fruit or sweeter vegetables such as root vegetables, but refuse their greens which tend to be more bitter or sour tasting. Additionally as we get older we lose some of our taste buds, and so food can taste completely different to babies and children than it does to us. Food rejection is part of a baby’s learning and development, as babies and children need to learn to like foods, just as they learn to like lots of things (my baby had to learn to like me!). It can take time to learn, and therefore take time to learn to like some foods, so it’s important you continue to offer a good variety of foods including refused foods, so they are exposed to those learning opportunities. Stay with it, they’ll get there.

Slower growth

The first year of life is a key time for growth and development which requires a lot of energy and nutrition, which is why breast milk or infant formula is key for the first 12 months of life. After 12 months a baby’s nutritional requirements reduces due to slower growth, which may present as your baby refusing food due to a poorer appetite. This is completely normal, and if you find your child refusing their food around this age, just let them guide you. Continue to offer their meals and let them eat how much or little they want.

Milk and routine

Too much milk, or milk too close to mealtimes can impact on your baby’s appetite. Think about yourself, if you had a glass of milk before your evening meal you’d probably eat less, or not feel like having it at all (this isn’t a diet tip by the way). However milk is a good protein source which fills babies up, and so offering food too close to milk feeds can put babies off their food. So if you’re finding problems with food refusal, consider milk volumes and timings. If your baby is growing well, progressing well with weaning, and having 3 meals per day you can leave approximately 2-3 hours between milk and food.

Tired

Now I do the nursery and the school run, and time and time again I hear parents of babies and children saying “they eat really well at breakfast and lunch, it’s just teatime they don’t eat”. Have you found yourself saying or thinking the same? Unless it’s lamb keema or spaghetti bolognese this is often the case in my house too (my children are 1 and 5). Eating food takes skill and effort which is why you might find that your baby will still take their full bedtime feed, even if they refused their evening meal. It is likely they’re just tired, and drinking is easier than eating. If they’ve eaten well during the day, try not to worry too much.

Why has my baby stopped eating?

But what if your baby refuses all food? Is this something to worry about? It might be, it might not, but we need to consider some options first.

Pain

Appetite reduces when we are in pain or unwell, and this is the same for babies. While babies are building their immune systems they can often become unwell, or they can feel pain from teething. This can be treated with over the counter baby pain/fever relief remedies which might help them feel better and eat better. The important thing when your baby is unwell is to keep them hydrated, so offer plenty of fluids.

Feeding positioning

Eating takes skill, and for babies it is not an easy thing to do. As I mentioned before it takes a lot of learning. If you want to help your baby to walk you give them a walker, a flat surface to walk, some well fitting age appropriate shoes. The same is needed with eating, and a highchair that offers a good positioning for feeding is key. You want your baby to concentrate on their feeding skills, so the less they need to concentrate on holding themselves upright, and where to put their feet the more they can concentrate on eating. Try to find a highchair that supports hips, knees and feet. You will see a big difference.

Pressure

Have you ever likened your baby to a teenager? Tell a teenager to do something they don’t want to do and they’re even less likely to do it. Babies are similar in that if they feel pressure to do something they don’t want to do, they dislike it even more. Babies sense worry and anxiety, and if these feelings are felt around mealtimes they are put off their food as they associate mealtimes with negative emotions. Try to remain positive, avoid pressure and try to relax. Let your baby play, learn and enjoy themselves at mealtimes, even if this involves a lot of mess.

So to recap, all babies are different, they’re unpredictable, they change their minds, they have mood swings, they are human just like us. Give them your time, your patience and opportunity to try again. When foods are rejected try again another time, and give your baby more chances with flavours and textures. Repeat exposure is key.

When to get help

What isn’t normal is persistently refusing to eat, losing weight, coughing or spluttering during mealtimes and really struggling with food. If any of these apply to your baby you must seek help from your GP or health visitor to rule out any medical problems, or get in touch and I will be happy to help you.

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