As busy new parents we’re usually focused on the mechanics of breast or bottle-feeding, then introducing solids: when to start, which foods, in what order, how much and how to provide the best nutrition. But most of us also hope to foster healthy eating behaviors for our children. We want to do all in our power to prevent eating disorders, childhood obesity (an issue of increasing concern), and even the subtler issues some of us struggle with, like the impulse to clean our plates or eat for emotional reasons. We are creatures of habit, and the first years in our child’s life are by far the easiest time to establish healthy ones.
Here are some feeding suggestions advised by infant specialist Magda Gerber that help establish positive eating behaviors.
Relax and enjoy breast or bottle feedings. Make eating a focused, intimate, stress-free time together.
Prepare the way for family dinners by making feedings a time for intimacy and social exchange. When we turn off the phone, computer, TV, and avoid other distractions to make feeding time sacred, we benefit our babies in many ways…
- Babies are refueled by the loving attention they get while nursing or bottle-feeding to then enjoy time playing independently.
- They learn that eating is a time to be mentally present, rather than being taught to ignore the experience by a distracted parent.
- Most importantly, our baby feels respected and valued when she is asked to actively participate in a feeding experience with us, rather than just being fed.
I recently read a comment from a mother who didn’t believe she should pay attention to her son while he breastfed because whenever she talked to him he stopped nursing. All I could think was — what a polite boy to stop sucking to listen to what his mom was saying! It sounded to me like he was trying his best to engage.
Tune in, and take care to not overfeed.
Paying attention to our baby during feedings also helps develop her internal cues to signal fullness. A study reported in Science Daily concluded that “tuning in” comes more easily when we breastfeed because, according to researcher Katherine F. Isselmann, M.P.H., “…with breast-feeding, the ability to measure in ounces how much a baby has eaten isn’t there, so mothers can become more in tune with when their babies are done eating and babies are able to develop their own internal cues to signal when they feel full.” The study compared preschool-aged children who had been breastfed with those who had been bottle fed with pumped breast milk and found that breastfed children could more easily determine when they were full and had a lower body mass index (BMI) than those fed by bottle.
If we bottle-feed, we must make a concerted effort to tune in to our baby’s signals and be less focused on the ounces in the bottle.
Be careful with comfort food.
Nursing a baby when she cries for reasons other than hunger, rewarding or soothing children with food can create dependencies. Ideally, these are exceptions, not the rule. We are always teaching our children, and the safest lesson for our babies to learn about food is to drink when thirsty, eat when hungry.
Small portions and no “one more bites”.
When introducing solids, Magda Gerber suggested placing a very small amount of food in the baby’s dish (with a larger bowl nearby), so that rather than feel overwhelmed by too much food, the baby has the opportunity to signal for ‘more’. We want to trust our babies to be “in charge” of their appetites, to indicate a desire for food by opening their mouths when we present them with a bite or spoonful. “Just one more bite” coaxing can turn feeding into something our babies do to please us, encourage overeating, or make eating a power struggle.
To give babies even more opportunity for active participation when they eat, offer the baby an extra spoon so she can practice. But when practicing becomes “playing with food”, gently discourage it.
Highchairs are considered a baby care staple, but Magda Gerber taught a unique approach to feeding babies without them. Magda’s method is conducive to intimacy during feedings and also encourages our baby’s independence. Since many of you have expressed interest in hearing more, I’ll briefly explain…
If solids are introduced before a baby is able to sit well and autonomously – meaning not propped or positioned, but able to attain a sitting position easily, entirely on their own – the baby is fed while reclining in the parent’s arms on the parent’s lap at the table. My husband and I wore an apron when we enjoyed these feeding adventures with our babies.
Then, when the baby sits easily and independently, you can transition to a small table (like breakfast-in-bed tray with legs, wooden footstool with a level top, one of the wonderful kidney-shaped tables we use in RIE parenting classes, or something you or your talented carpenter husband can make). The baby sits on the floor, then later on a small stool or chair, while you sit across the table from her.
Toddlers love the independence they have when they can sit with their feet on the floor. They also appreciate the freedom to leave the table to signal they are finished eating rather than waiting to be removed from a highchair. (For more, including a video demonstration, please read Baby Table Manners.)
No ‘squat-and-gobble’. Sit down while eating, wherever and whenever.
Sitting down while eating, even if it’s just for snacks on a patch of grass in the park, helps prevent choking accidents and encourages relaxed, attentive eating. It’s also good manners, especially when visiting the homes of others (who might not welcome a trail of cracker crumbs). Asking a baby to sit when he eats is a sensible first behavior boundary. Don’t let your toddler trick you into following him around with food in your hand. When infants and toddlers are hungry, they are absolutely capable of sitting down if we are consistent and clear about expecting it.
Eating while playing, playing while eating.
Help your child learn to keep activities separate to help delineate meals and snacks as times to focus on food. Asking a child to sit (rather than climb monkey bars) while he eats is one way — keeping toys away from the table is another. Ask your toddler to please put his toy down until he is finished eating.
Babies, especially when they become toddlers, don’t always eat the way we expect them to, and it’s easy to become anxious if our child doesn’t seem to be eating enough, especially if he isn’t gaining weight normally. Of course we must check in regularly with our baby’s doctor, explore possible allergies, illnesses or digestive issues. But try to be calm during baby’s mealtimes. He senses our tension and it can make eating more difficult for him in the short term, and possibly contribute to problems down the road.
Model healthy eating.
We know we should walk the walk, but darn, we like to eat while we’re standing up and running around. This is yet another instance when our babies make us better.
Only our babies can know their own appetite. So, our goal might be to encourage them to stay attuned, to keep listening, and trusting their tummies. And if we establish healthy eating behaviors in these formative first years…we can all fudge later.
I share a complete guide to respectful parenting in my book Elevating Child Care