As a pediatrician, I’m often asked how much freedom children should have regarding eating choices. Conversely, parents want to know what they can do to help influence healthy eating habits.
At Easter Seals Southwest Human Development, we adhere to a proven theory of feeding advice, offered by therapist and registered dietician Ellyn Satter. It’s known as “A Division of Responsibility.”
For infants, you are responsible for what your baby eats. You provide the food, often with the advice of your pediatrician, and for the first 12 months, this is mostly a liquid diet breast milk or formula. Your baby is responsible for how much she eats. Over time, your child takes on more responsibility in what to eat and when.
Following are three tips you can employ to help your child learn this responsibility at the appropriate times, and put them on a path toward life-long healthy eating.
1) Help babies (and yourself) learn to recognize when they are full.
This can be a bit easier when breastfeeding because parents don’t have the sense of exactly how many ounces their baby is eating. To look at the ounce marker on a bottle and have a predetermined sense of “this is how much my baby eats” gives parents the wrong impression.
Instead, your baby should eat until she is full and is expressing that she is done.
Babies may pull away from the bottle, turn their head away from the bottle or display a general disinterest. When you let her tell you that she is done eating, your baby learns to develop a sense of satiety and to stop eating when she’s full.
2) Develop a family meal schedule.
As baby grows into a toddler, you are still responsible for what food is made available and, perhaps equally important when and where it is available. This social structure of meal times is very important to forming healthy eating habits because it provides a sense of “this is when we eat as a family and this time is important.”
It also provides a structure for meal times and snack times, as opposed to allowing a child to graze throughout the day. When food is available all day, children don’t develop their own innate sense of the “tank is full” or the “tank is empty” and don’t stop eating when full.
Parents are also responsible for where the child eats. Many studies support limiting screen time when eating because it distracts our attention from the full feeling and we tend to overeat.
3) Be okay with them not eating.
Even though you pick the food, the time and the place, your child should still be responsible for how much and whether or not he or she is going to eat at all.
What happens naturally is that your child may eat really well at one meal, poorly at another meal and not at all at another meal. If taught to pay attention to their hunger level and to eat what they need at that moment, this is okay and healthy. Don’t force your child to eat.
Instead, pay attention to your child’s intake over the course of an entire week. You will likely find that your child will take what she needs for growth — nothing more and nothing less — which is a healthy habit that will last a lifetime.
Daniel B. Kessler, M.D. is medical director of the Children’s Developmental Center at Easter Seals Southwest Human Development. A developmental and behavioral pediatrician with more than 28 years of experience, Kessler works with a multi-disciplinary team to provide comprehensive, integrated care for young children with developmental and behavioral problems and their families.