How to get babies to eat?

Susan Fernandez November 11 2021

Norms for your baby

If your baby won't eat, you probably feel like there's nothing more horrifying than watching them refuse to take their next bite. When babies don't give up on their food habits, parents often find themselves wondering how they can get them to finally start eating enough. Babies typically need about 2-3 oz (60-90 mL) of breast milk or formula per pound (0.5 kg) of body weight daily. So, for example, if your baby weighs 6 lbs (2.7 kg), he'll need about 15-22 oz (450-650 mL) every day.

Tips on how to feed your child

  •  Before you start, determine whether your child is truly not eating or is just transitioning foods. For example, if you've started solids but they're only getting about 1 oz (30 mL) per feeding, they might be transitioning rather than refusing food. You may also want to try giving them milk first during a meal before solid foods are served so that their tummy isn't full by the time the solid food comes around.
  • Give your baby plenty of opportunities to eat solid foods every day. Play with new textures and encourage him to take at least one bite of all new foods before deciding he doesn't like it, even if it's something as simple as steamed carrots. He will likely need at least 3-4 tastes before he's able to decide whether or not he likes it.
  • If your baby is refusing a particular food, pick other nutritious foods that they like and offer them more of those instead. Try offering new foods in ways with which your child is familiar, such as thinly sliced apples in place of celery sticks. You can also try simply mixing either all-fruit or all-vegetable purees together so that you know they're getting at least one serving of vegetables and fruits per day without having to eat anything new.
  • If solids are going well and your child eats the same small amount every meal, try keeping a food diary for a week or two to help determine how much they're really eating throughout the day. The number of ounces (mL) your child needs per day should roughly equal the total amount they eat at all meals and snacks, plus two additional 1 oz (30 mL) servings. If you suspect that certain foods may be interfering with how much milk your child drinks, keep those separate from milk for a couple of days to see if their consumption changes as well.
  • Remember that it's okay to serve small portions, especially when starting solids. For nutrient-dense foods such as meat, eggs, legumes, and iron-containing vegetables – which are usually more difficult for babies to digest – serve very small amounts during each meal. Babies usually need only about 2 tsp (10 g) or less of these types of food at any one time.
  • Make sure that your child is eating enough for his age and weight. If your doctor has told you to increase how much your baby eats because he's not gaining weight, make sure he gets at least 1 oz (30 mL) per pound (0.5 kg) of body weight daily, or 2-3 oz (60-90mL) per pound every two days. If you still feel like your baby needs more food than what you're able to offer, ask a dietitian to help develop a meal plan for your family that will ensure that everyone is getting the nutrients they need.
  • Be consistent about when and where solids are offered so that your child gets into an eating pattern that works well for your entire family. Offer solid foods at about the same times each day and in familiar, comfortable settings. If he starts eating more consistently during one of his meals or snacks, try scheduling it earlier to see if that works better for you all.
  • Try offering food with a spoon first before using your fingers (particularly when first starting out). You can always move to finger foods later on after your child is more comfortable with eating. Start by putting some soft foods like cooked carrots on the tip of your baby's highchair tray; as they get bigger, make them easier to pick up with chubby hands by cutting them into spears or sticks or shredding them into small pieces.
  • Show your baby how yummy new foods can be by letting him watch you enjoy them. Give him a small taste from your plate to see if he'll mimic what you're doing – and offer praise when he does!
  • Don't force or challenge your baby to eat more than his body needs by playing games with food, such as 'clean the plate' or causing a fuss over how much he ate. Instead of focusing on numbers and quantities, give him plenty of opportunities to explore foods in fun ways so that eating is pleasurable for everyone involved. For example: Add some steamed broccoli florets and thinly sliced carrot sticks to his favorite pasta noodles and sauce; top off last night's dinner leftovers with shredded cheese, chili flakes, and crumbled bacon bits; fill cupcake liners with blended vegetables, shredded chicken, and pasta shells, bake, and then let him pick them up with his fingers.
  • Don't add salt or butter to your baby's food.
  • Be aware that 'picky eating is a phase that most babies go through when they're learning to eat new foods.
  • Offer milk at regular intervals throughout the day (at least eight times) to ensure that your baby gets enough nourishment; try offering smaller amounts of solid food along with breast milk or formula between meals if he isn't eating much during mealtimes. When he does start eating larger amounts during solids, you may find it easier to see how much your child is actually eating by giving him only one or two solid foods at a time.
  • Try pre-loading your baby's day with nutritious foods, especially the first thing in the morning, to increase his appetite throughout the rest of the day. If he wakes up earlier than you'd like him to, wait until after breakfast to start solids so that he doesn't fill up on milk alone and isn't too full to eat solid food when it's time for his first meal of the day.
  • Keep offering new foods even if he refuses them several times. Babies who are only offered one or two foods for an extended period of time might become overly familiar with those foods and refuse other options later on – but don't worry!

What do psychologists recommend?

Keep offering new foods even if he refuses them several times. Babies who are only offered one or two foods for an extended period of time might become overly familiar with those foods and refuse other options later on – but don't worry!

What do dietitians recommend?

Give your baby plenty of nutritious finger foods to try over the next few weeks, even though it may seem like he's not interested in eating. He'll probably start sampling more solid food as you experiment with different finger foods!

Try to offer familiar foods in a different preparation. For example, if your child likes raw carrots but not cooked ones, try offering them in a savory muffin or carrot cake recipe and see if he'll take a bite!

Final word

Getting your baby off to a good start is one of the best things you can do for her. Forcing her to eat more than she needs or refusing nutritious foods may set the stage for poor food choices and picky eating later on – but by providing her with plenty of healthy meals and snacks, making mealtimes as pleasant as possible, and celebrating even the smallest bites, your child will grow up loving healthy foods and feeling great!