Infant specialist Magda Gerber’s feeding recommendations made perfect sense to me and have “served” my children well. She encouraged parents to be observant and responsive to cues, pay undivided focused attention during breastfeeding, bottle feeding and all mealtimes, trust infants and toddlers to know their bodies and communicate their needs. As the result of these practices, my children not only continue to be healthy eaters, they are also focused learners, secure, emotionally healthy. I’m sold. Still, it’s gratifying to know that there is substantial research corroborating Magda’s advice. Obesity researcher Kiyah Duffey, Ph.D., generously shares it here …
Research Supports RIE’s Infant Feeding Practices
“You have to finish what’s on your plate before you can have dessert.” It’s something that many of us likely heard as children, and have possibly even used with our own kids. Wanting our children to learn not to be wasteful (or ungrateful) with their food is understandable, but it turns out that ultimatums like this may have some unintended, and possibly lasting negative, consequences.
Parenting Style & Self-Regulation
The ways in which we interact with our children, our parenting style, has the broadest influence on a child’s behavior because it creates the emotional climate within which practices can be accepted or rejected by the child1.
Parents, and the ways in which they interact with their child, influence the development of self-regulation, the ability of a child to govern him/herself, in very specific ways2. Studies have shown that self-regulated children have parents who show positive versus negative emotion3-5, who are accepting (not dismissing) of their children’s emotional expression6,7, and who are not overly controlling of their children’s behavior8,9. These are many of the basic principles of RIE, championed by Magda Gerber, which teaches parents to be responsive to their child’s needs using sensitive observation, to be fully engaged in activities when the child indicates readiness otherwise letting their children explore and play freely, and to be consistent in their behavior, clearly defining limits and expectations to develop discipline.
The Link to Health Eating Habits
Healthy self-regulation is key to healthy eating habits in children. Certain types of behavioral feeding practices, which are often closely linked to parenting style, have been shown to diminish a child’s ability to self-regulate food intake. Over time, this inability to self-regulate (to listen to internal cues of hunger and satiety) can lead to overeating, eating in the absence of hunger, and ultimately to health consequences like overweight and obesity: parents’ short term food goals end up having lasting and negative consequences down the road.
Specifically, numerous studies have shown that highly directive and/or controlling feeding practices are linked to lower self-regulation and higher weight status among children10,11.Children who are instructed to “clean their plates” tend to be less responsive to energy density cues than children who were taught to focus on internal cues of hunger and fullness12, and in general children whose parents were more focused on external cues of consumption, rather than trusting their children’s ability to accurately identify feelings of fullness, had lower self-regulation and greater eating in the absence of hunger13,14. Low maternal support (which measured four dimensions of emotional support using the Relational Support Inventory)
 These dimensions were (1) emotional support: warmth versus hostility (e.g., “This person shows me that he/she loves me”); (2) respect for autonomy versus setting limits (e.g., “This person lets me decide as often as possible”); (3) quality of information versus withholding of information (e.g., “This person explains or shows how I can make or do something”); and (4) convergence of central and peripheral goals versus opposition of goals (e.g., “This person criticizes my opinions about religion, philosophy of life, or social engagement”).
paired with high levels of psychological control (which measured the degree to which parents use emotional feedback to control behavior, and was measured using questions such as “My father/mother makes me feel guilty when I fail at school’’) was associated with emotional eating which extended all the way into young adolescents15.
What You Can Do
- Serve small portions: It is important for parents to have informed and realistic expectations about their children’s food intake. Remember that children have small stomachs. Serving the same portion size to your toddler as you do to yourself sets everyone up to experience failure at the dinner table; your child may fight eating more and you’ll feel like they have hardly touched their food. So start small with portions. Allow your child to finish what’s on her plate and learn to ask for more food, or better yet let her serve herself (at least one study has shown that children consume 25% more energy when given age-inappropriate portion sizes compared to self-served portions16). This gives her a sense of independence and control and provides another opportunity for her to listen to her internal cues.
- Focus on eating and remove distractions: Studies have shown that eating while distracted leads to over consumption and reduced feelings of fullness (even when more calories are consumed)17, so when it’s time to eat, whether it’s a meal or a snack, take time to sit down and really enjoy your food. Stay present and attuned to the task at hand and use meal/snack time as another opportunity to connect with your child. All of these behaviors will help your child (and you!) develop a healthy respect and relationship with food.
- Take your time: Parents of young children have probably observed that kids tend to take longer to eat than adults, and this might actually be a good thing as it takes our body time to register those satiety signals telling us that we’re full. In children, shorter attention spans (at 1 year old) have been associated with a greater chance of being overweight at age 618, so take time to focus on the task at hand…and on enjoying the company.
- Trust your children: It’s important to remember that caloric needs are met over the course of a day, not at any given meal and that children’s appetites will vary depending on what else they’ve eaten that day, how active they have been, and whether or not they are going through a period of rapid development or growth. It’s difficult to keep tabs on everything your child has consumed, especially if you’re not with him all day, so trust that he knows when he’s through eating. Teach him to identify that feeling with words and to tell you that he’s full.
- Model the behavior you want to see: Children often need repeated exposure to foods before they are willing to even taste them, let alone willing to eat them. But be patient. Continue to present the food at the dinner table, each time offering it without forcing them to consume it. Then take some yourself and let your child see you enjoying it. And don’t feel the need to trick your child into eating his vegetables, for example smothering the broccoli in cheese in the hopes that he forgets the green stuff is there. These efforts will only back-fire in the long run. Parental modeling and availability of fresh fruits and vegetables at home have been positively associated with fruit and vegetable consumption in children19, even years later 20!
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Kiyah Duffey, PhD is a research assistant professor in Nutrition at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research focuses on the relationship between dietary patterns and long term weight gain in U.S. adults, but as a mom (soon to be of two!) with a love of cooking and interest in supporting sustainably raised and locally grown foods, the intersection of her research and real passion is in making healthy eating more accessible and in helping others understand how dietary habits established early in life are associated with overall well-being in both parents and children. You can read more about Kiyah’s thoughts on parenting and nutrition at kiyahduffey.com.
(Photo of my daughter at the child-sized table she adored was taken by me.)