Few things can frustrate a new parent as much as a baby that won't eat. Fortunately, most babies come with built-in alarms that let them -- and everyone else in the house -- know when they're ready to eat. But if your baby was ill or premature at birth, he might develop a mild or severe feeding aversion; as many as 40 to 70 percent of these babies do, according to Nutrition 411, along with 25 percent of normal infants. It takes persistence, patience and often the help of health care professionals to overcome infant feeding aversions.
Preemies or Ill Infants
Premature or sick infants often go weeks to months without taking foods by mouth. Instead, they receive nutrition through a gastrointestinal feeding tube or intravenous infusion. Because they may have tubes placed frequently through their mouth or nose for feeding or to assist with breathing, these babies often develop oral defensiveness, and resist being touched and resist having anything brought near their mouth or face. When babies don't take oral feedings in their first few months, they appear to have difficulty coordinating their suck-swallow reflexes when they can finally eat. Babies who develop sensory feeding aversions often refuse certain types of foods -- crunchy rather than smooth, for example -- rather than all foods. Children on the autism spectrum often develop feeding aversions.
A baby with a feeding aversion will turn his head away, cry or fight when you try to put a nipple or solid food in his mouth. He might have difficulty chewing and swallowing, and he may gag or vomit when food is forced into his mouth. Some babies with sensory feeding aversions suck 100 times less frequently during a feeding than typical babies, states Dr. Irene Chatoor, a professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine, as published on the Zero to Three website. A baby with a food aversion might eat very slowly and often doesn't take in enough calories by mouth to grow normally. Some babies with feeding aversions also have sensory issues with certain fabrics, textures, sounds or smells.
Every baby with a feeding aversion will respond differently; working with an occupational therapist, speech pathologist or other specialist in feeding aversions can help you find the techniques that will help you and your baby. At first, simply being able to stroke your baby's cheek without his arching away from you might be a major accomplishment. Getting the baby to accept a spoon -- without any food -- near his mouth might be the next step. Getting your baby to eat normally can take months. Some babies do better when they can "play" with their food before tasting it. Feeding sessions should be limited in time --10 minutes is a good place to start, according to the Children's Hospital of Richmond -- and interlaced with positive reinforcement.
A baby with feeding aversions can end up with failure to thrive, a condition where his nutritional intake doesn't keep pace with his physical needs. An older baby with aversions to certain foods can develop nutritional deficiencies. He might need a feeding tube that delivers nutrients directly to his intestines to help him survive and thrive. A baby with food aversions often becomes a child or adult who suffers from eating problems and nutritional deficiencies his entire life. Feeding aversions can affect the whole family; it is important not to let yourself feel that you've failed your baby if he develops this problem, neonatologist Dr. Dara Brodsky explains in her textbook, "Primary Care of the Premature Infant."