In a world of instant access to information and parenting trends showcased on social media, award-winning author and international speaker, Melanie Potock, CCC-SLP, has released a research-backed book on a proven way to establish healthy eating habits and relationships with food and our children, Responsive Feeding: The
Baby-First Guide to Stress-Free Weaning, Healthy Eating, and Mealtime Bonding. Melanie shares wisdom gained from over 20 years in speech language pathology and feeding therapy. Responsive feeding is a technique that took root in the 1990s and is recommended by organizations such as the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) and the U.S. Department of Health.
Responsive feeding is baby-led and establishes a “dance,” as Melanie calls it, between listening to your baby communicating and meeting those needs in a loving way. This requires parents to be in tune with their baby’s hunger cues as well as identifying baby’s signals of satiety.
“Feeding trends come and go, but babies don’t change the way they communicate,” Potock writes. Reading these cues and responding to your child’s hunger in a timely manner allows them to send hunger signals without interruption and in their natural form. Responding to these signals helps to determine and nurture ways to help establish baby’s confidence that their basic needs will be met.
Babies may indicate hunger by sucking on their hands, rooting or making sucking noises or getting excited at the sight or smell of food. While they have a limited vocabulary babies may indicate fullness by pushing the bottle away or unlatching, turning their head from the spoon or becoming easily distracted. It is important not to force children to finish bottles or meals once they indicate fullness.
Incorporating sensory development
Feeding can be messy, but messy is not bad. It may seem easier for parents to control meal time by not putting food within reach, but not allowing children to feed themselves by spoon or fingers denies their bodies and brains the chance to develop fine motor skills.
“Children are born to explore the world with their hands and mouth,” Potock explains. “Grasping on and feeling the sensation of the food in their hand tells their brain what to expect is going into their mouth.” Potock writes that “when parents focus on getting their children to eat, rather than learning to eat, whether it’s a premature baby or a
fussy toddler, it may work in the short term. But it will quickly backfire, causing the child to have negative experiences and to develop negative memories that will influence future mealtimes.”
Dr. Katelyn Oostra, from Oregon Pediatrics (ProMedica), strongly agrees with the responsive feeding methods and the mantra “Parents provide, children decide.” She says, “Parents can decide what they want to put on the plate for their baby or toddler…once the plate is set in front of the child, the child gets to decide which foods they eat
and how much. The more parents can sit back and let go of trying to control exactly what and how much their child is eating, the less stressed meal times will be.”
Transitioning to solids
Responsive Feeding provides guidelines for transitioning children to purees and solids. Babies are typically ready to begin transitioning to solids around six months, or after they are able to sit up on their own with head control. This demonstrates some mastery of gross motor skills and allows the baby to develop fine motor skills with food.
There are typically three methods to introduce children to solid foods. The traditional method has been going from breast milk or formula to smooth purees, delaying the introduction of textured solids. Another method is strict Baby-led Weaning (BLW), meaning that babies pick up food themselves and feed with no assistance.
Responsive feeding most aligns with a third approach: hybrid. It is typically safe for babies to add solids to their diet at 6 months — it doesn’t have to be only spoon-fed purees or finger foods. When using a hybrid approach, parents offer a variety of foods with a variety of textures helping children to be less picky as they grow. “The longer parents wait to introduce lumpier or chunkier solid foods the less likely children are to like them later on,” adds Potock. “Solids should be introduced by the time the child is ten months old.”
Long term benefits
While parents are dealing with numerous demands, meal time remains an important part of a child’s physical and emotional development. According to the AAP, the benefits of responsive feeding include bonding with your child, establishing healthy relationships with food, decreasing risk of obesity and assisting with language and motor skill development.
“Focus more on relationships than having the ‘right’ things on the plate,” says Potock. The benefits of family mealtimes do not stop after children become toddlers. Children who grow up with consistent family mealtimes are less likely to suffer from anxiety or depression,
they tend to make better decisions concerning peer relationships and they are more likely to abstain from drug use. It’s important to remove distractions during this time. Giving your child undivided attention allows you to connect emotionally as well as to recognize
fullness cues. Dr. Oostra reiterates that the communication involved in responsive feeding is similar to communication in all aspects of parenting: recognizing our children’s needs and offering healthy choices and responses.
Not too late
Even children beyond the infant and toddler stage it is still possible to help with healthy eating habits. For family mealtimes, Dr. Oostra suggests starting with small, realistic goals. “Think of it like exercising,” she says. “Set a realistic goal. Decide when you are going to have the meal time. How often will it be? If that doesn’t work, adjust the goal. It doesn’t have to be dinner, if dinner doesn’t work for your family’s schedule. Maybe your family’s meal together is breakfast. That’s okay too.”