How to Raise a Healthy and Happy Eater: Follow a Division of Responsibility in Feeding

By — Obesity Prevention Special Edition Contributor
Updated on May 17, 2010

Parents want their child to eat well and to grow up healthy. When a child is chubby and seems to eat too much or is small and won’t eat enough, is picky, won’t eat vegetables and other family foods, parents worry. Family members and friends advise parents to get their child to eat more or less, or just to eat more vegetables. The wrong action taken to fix the child’s eating problem may begin a long cycle of feeding related stress.

This article will present one approach to help you make decisions about what to do about how your young child eats. A healthy approach to the feeding relationship will prevent or solve almost all feeding problems.

What is normal eating for a young child?

Children are born knowing how much to eat. They are perfect regulators of their Caloric needs1 and it is up to the parent to allow them to hold on to this innate ability. From birth onwards, growth proceeds at an uneven pace. Growth spurts are accompanied by an increased need for Calories and sleep, and during periods of slow growth these needs diminish.

Let’s look at normal eating for young children. Normal eating behaviors are:

  • Eating a lot one day or meal, and little the next
  • Picky eating
  • Liking a food, then refusing to eat it the next time that food is served
  • Preferring certain types of food over others – the “pasta eater,” for example
  • Persistently refusing to eat some foods then suddenly craving those very foods
  • Learning to sit at the table during mealtime and behaving politely
  • Being able to cautiously try a new food

Feeding problems can develop when parents struggle with normal developmental eating behaviors.

During the first months of life, infants will vary their daily calorie intake by 20 to 30 percent a day. While breastfed babies vary their intake without the parents noticing, parents of bottle fed infants see this variation and often try to get their infant to eat more or less, based not on their baby’s appetite but on the contents of a bottle of milk. Infants know how much to eat, and when they need to eat. Parents can create problems by not recognizing this capability. By encouraging or forcing their baby to drink more or less, parents may be interfering with their infant’s ability to self-regulate his intake, exacerbating the very problem they hope to avoid.

Around 6 months of age, when solid foods are introduced, it is normal for the older baby to try the new foods, reject new flavors, and then accept them gradually. It may take 10 to 20 exposures before some babies will like certain foods. Research shows that 25% of parents consider their 6 month olds picky eaters. At any age, about a quarter of all parents stop offering a new food after the child has refused it just twice.2

During the first year of life, babies continue the pattern of eating varying amounts each meal and each day. Parents often focus on getting, forcing, or making the baby to eat an amount which they feel is enough, so the parents fail to trust the baby’s self-regulatory capability. Parents ignore the baby’s satiety or hunger cues. Many feeding problems begin with these struggles, as parents’ expectations don’t match the baby’s needs. Parents create problems when they encourage a baby to eat more or less than she wants or when they assume that their baby didn’t like a food because she refused it several times.

By 8 months of age, the older baby or almost-toddler is beginning to experiment with doing things for himself. An 8 to 12 month old might suddenly refuse to be spoon fed, insisting that he do it for himself. He takes interest in what the parent eats, and will benefit by eating table foods with the family at mealtimes. He may become more hesitant to eat new foods, or, in contrast, may become more bold. He is experimenting and is malleable. Feeding problems are common at this stage, especially when parents fail to recognize the new need for independence and do not notice their baby’s cues.

Toddlers are notorious for their ability to know just how to engage their parents in battles. They become opinionated about what and how much they want to eat. They may develop bizarre food preferences, or even lose interest in eating. These reactions are normal. As growth slows down significantly after 12 months, caloric needs also decrease, and total caloric intake fluctuates considerably day to day. However generally, the average intake will be at an acceptable level. Yet, parental stress over perceived and developing ‘feeding problems’ that were minor in earlier stages becomes full-blown with the toddler.

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