August 16, 2023

How to Be an Attentive Feeder and Raise Intuitive Eaters

How to Be an Attentive Feeder and Raise Intuitive Eaters

Written by Vanessa McNamara, The Travelling Dietitian.

Do you feel like feeding your baby is more of a chore than an event?

One of the risks of spoon-feeding babies using the traditional pureed approach, is that it can be tempting to expect your child to finish the food you serve for them. We might do whatever it takes to get there, no matter how much distraction and cajoling is required. This is often, however, at the expense of the mealtime experience and power struggles can quite quickly spiral out of control.

So how can we ensure babies enjoy their mealtime experience and learn to trust their internal cues? And how can we as parents trust our babies to know when to stop?

Let’s first take a look at the concept of Intuitive Eating.

Intuitive Eating (IE), a concept developed by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in 1995, is a positive eating approach defined as eating based on physiological hunger and satiety cues rather than situational and emotional cues.

We are all born intuitive eaters. Babies have an incredible ability to tune in to their hunger and fullness cues – they drink milk when they are hungry and stop when they’ve had enough. This innate skill generally remains until external influences interrupt intuition. External influences include factors such as:

  • Parental pressure to eat more or less of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods, or a preoccupation with weight
  • Peer pressure to eat what everyone else is eating, or to look a certain way
  • Boredom or other emotional triggers such as sadness and anxiety
  • Advertising and marketing of foods
  • Unrealistic food rules and body norms set by society and reinforced by social media

Intuitive eating promotes principles such as respecting one’s body, making food choices that honour our health and that also bring satisfaction.

Extensive research tells us that intuitive eaters are less likely to have depression, low self-esteem and body dissatisfaction. 

A parent’s feeding style can play a pivotal role in developing a child’s relationship with food. Setting boundaries can be helpful, as long as we are consistent with these, but love, care and respect for your child’s body is just as important.

My top tips for raising an intuitive eater:

  1. Adopt a Diplomatic Feeding Style. As paediatric dietitian Jill Castle explains, this style of feeding focuses on the details of the meal (what will be served, when it will be served and the environment in which it is served) but allows the child to decide how much of it they will eat and if they will eat it at all. This concept is based on the Division of Responsibility in feeding, a term coined by feeding expert, Ellyn Satter.
    1. What – provide a balance of carbohydrates, protein, fat and vegetables/fruit. Be sure to provide at least one safe food you know each child will eat, but also include foods they currently don’t eat or have previously refused so that they can learn to eat them.
    2. When – offer 3 meals and 2-3 snacks at roughly the same time everyday. Avoid snacking outside these times and don’t be afraid to set boundaries, such as no additional meals or snacks if what you’ve provided isn’t eaten.
    3. Where – create a relaxed, happy environment in which to eat. Try to make mealtimes a space that remains positive. Also provide appropriate seating to allow for adequate support and comfort. Having an adjustable highchair with a footrest will help to keep your baby posturally stable, allowing them to focus their attention on eating rather than sitting.
  2. For younger children and babies, try to feed them in a responsive manner, taking note of any signs that they have had enough.
  3. Remember that a child’s appetite will vary from day to day, hour to hour. Just because they ate two portions yesterday doesn’t mean they will today.
  4. If they are showing signs of having had enough earlier than you think they should, pause for a while and spend time playing with and exploring the food a little further. Then try again. If they still don’t want anymore, be clear that the meal time is over and move on.
  5. If you are spoon-feeding your baby or toddler, be sure to be attentive to their needs:
    1. Feed them slowly, waiting for them to finish a mouthful before offering the next.
    2. Bring the loaded spoon towards their mouth and let them move into the spoon rather than you moving the spoon into their mouth. They will appreciate owning the decision to have another mouthful when they’re ready.
    3. Always sit in front of your baby, not beside or behind them.
    4. Where possible, sit and eat with your child. Being a positive role model, showing them that the food is safe and modelling how to eat it, will have a positive impact on their eating habits.

Being a responsive, attentive and respectful feeder will improve mealtime experiences for everyone. Remind yourself that you’re doing the best you can, and sometimes just sitting back to enjoy the event makes the food seem so much more appealing.