Babies and toddlers who are less accepting of new toys, and less adventurous overall, are also more likely to be picky eaters, new research suggests. “From the time they’re very young, some infants are more ‘approaching’ and react positively to new things, whereas other infants are more ‘withdrawing’ and react negatively to the same stimuli,” coauthor on the study Kameron Moding, postdoctoral fellow at University of Colorado Denver, said in a statement.
Past research indicates that babies gravitate toward objects without hesitation before 9-months-old, but then develop what researchers refer to as “approach-withdrawal tendencies”—what we might generously call “discerning tastes” (or less generously recognize as picky eating). This is probably an adaptive trait that protects children from danger, giving them the tools to reject foods that may harm them. But besides one 2016 study that found a link between picky eating and fear of new things, how approach-withdrawal tendencies influence personality has seldom been studied.
Moding and her team conducted a series of experiments with 136 mother-infant pairs at six months, 12 months, and 18 month of age. During the first two lab visits, the researchers watched as the children played with toys and tried new foods. Then, at 18 months, toddlers were put in a room to explore unfamiliar objects, like a tunnel, animal mask, and black box. The results revealed that 18-month-olds who reacted more positively to the new toys also reacted more positively to new foods. Likewise, those who reacted negatively to new toys were similarly skeptical of new foods.
“Responses to novel foods appear to follow the same developmental pattern as the emergence of inhibited approach,” the authors write. “Infants were less accepting of novel foods after, compared to before, the development of inhibited approach.” Since the study was observational, however, it is impossible to determine whether picky eating causes more cautious personality traits to develop, or vice versa. It’s also possible, the authors write, that outside factors influence temperament, and that two symptoms of an adventurous temperament are playing with new toys and trying new foods.
Nonetheless, Moding’s findings break new ground in the study of how specific aspects of our personalities develop. “It was striking how consistently the responses to new foods related to the responses to new toys,” she says.