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food parenting

Young family enjoying mealtime prep with their toddler

The fundamentals of food parenting

Every mom and dad have their own unique style of parenting - but ultimately, every family has the same goal: to raise a healthy child.

Food parenting is a practice that assists in shaping baby’s relationship with food. It has the power to influence both baby’s short and long-term health and establish healthy eating practices that will last them a lifetime.

Nurturing with nutrients

Food parenting isn’t just about feeding baby the right amount of nutrients - how you feed baby is as important as what you feed them. 

This practice encompasses the knowledge, beliefs, and behaviors that parents pass on to their baby during mealtimes. There are a number of feeding practices and styles that parents can use around the dinner table, but all ultimately lay the foundation of life-long food preferences and behaviors.  

All of us are born with a natural preference for sweet tastes - we tend to reject bitter or unfamiliar foods. But food parenting can help fine-tune baby’s preferences so they opt for those healthy foods, even when they’re more bitter in taste.

We also inherently understand how to regulate how much food we’re consuming. It’s up to the parent to learn what those hunger and fullness cues are so they can feed baby accordingly.

Feeding styles

Just as there are different parenting styles, there are a number of different food parenting styles too.

When we talk about parenting styles, we mean the way parents choose to raise their family. Some parents opt for a rule-enforcing, authoritarian style parenting. Others take on a more permissive and relaxed style where children have more control. These styles ultimately shape a baby’s physical, emotional, cognitive, and social development. 

The four parenting styles

Similarly, feeding styles define the way parents interact with their baby during mealtimes. These styles impact how baby forms a relationship with food. There are four categories that explain the differences in approaches when it comes to feeding babies.

The 4 feeding styles

The four main feeding styles each have their own unique set of rules and practices which shape a baby’s relationship with food. These four styles include:

  1. Diplomatic: This feeding style involves a division of responsibility between the parent and baby at mealtimes. The parent guides and teaches baby about food, and together, they learn to recognize baby’s hunger and fullness cues. You provide (what food/s are on offer and where and when) and they decide (what and how much they eat) This style results in the development of healthy eating habits and habits and may prevent obesity later in life..
  2. Indulgent: If a parent easily gives in to the baby’s food requests, they’re engaging in an indulgent feeding style. There is a lack of food boundaries and no structure to meal and snack times. This can result in both overweight and picky eaters, who don’t learn to listen to their hunger and fullness cues, and often afraid to try new foods.
  3. Controlling: This style has a heavy focus on rules, where baby is expected to finish everything on the plate and is often bribed to eat healthy foods. This controlling style overrides baby’s natural appetite and can lead to both overweight and underweight issues, including food phobia and stress around eating.
  4. Uninvolved: When a lack of importance is placed on meals and health in general, parents are taking part in an uninvolved feeding style. The pantry and fridge is often close to empty or lacks healthy food options. This style creates a fend-for-yourself feeling which leaves a child worrying about when their next meal will come.

Getting emotional

Emotions play a big role in the relationship baby creates with food. To understand how this develops, it’s useful to know how a baby’s emotions grow and change as they age.

Food supports social and emotional development

Primary emotions

Baby’s first emotions are instinctive responses to their internal and external environment. They cry, groan, smile and coo depending on how they’re feeling. These primary emotions form in the first 3 months of baby’s life and include feelings of discomfort or contentment, positive or negative, and pleasant or unpleasant.

Secondary emotions

Secondary emotions develop between 3 and 7 months. At this stage, emotions are becoming more distinct as baby learns more about themself and the world around them. They’re now able to anticipate the breast or bottle before feeding, self soothe and show excitement. Secondary emotions include sadness, anger, fear, surprise and joy.

Complex emotions

Complex emotions develop after 12 months. Emotions become more sophisticated as baby learns a sense of self and develops relationships with others. Baby will react to changes in routine, push away things they don’t want and may experience separation anxiety. Complex emotions include pride, eagerness to please, embarrassment, guilt, and shame.

Giving guidance

Emotional eating

We eat because we need the energy and nutrients that come from food to survive. But we all know that we don’t just consume food for survival purposes... Hunger aside, many people respond to different emotional states by consuming particular foods. Just think about how many times you’ve reached for food because you’re feeling bored or sad. 

This is called emotional eating, and it’s a learned behavior, likely from infancy. When a baby begins to associate food with comfort, it can lead to eating disorders and put them at risk of developing childhood obesity. 

Food moods

If we’re not careful, babies can learn to eat in response to their emotional states. That’s why it’s important for parents to understand baby’s eating patterns - they need to be sure baby is eating to satisfy hunger, and not for another reason.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of soothing baby with food. If a newborn is agitated, mothers generally respond by breast or bottle feeding. It’s when baby is constantly fed for reasons other than hunger that emotional feeding can become a problem. 

Using food as a reward can also be problematic. Using sugary treats to reward a baby may lead them to associate eating with how they are feeling (sugar = pride or happiness), leading to emotional eating. Categorizing food into good and bad - if you eat this, you can have that as a reward -can  result in an emotional eater.

Feeding practices

Parenting practices

In general, parenting practices refer to the behaviors or actions (intentional or unintentional) performed by parents in raising a baby. These are the practices that will influence baby’s attitude, behavior, beliefs and overall relationship with food. This can be a tricky area for parents to navigate, as they have to learn not to let their own food preferences and history interfere with what and how they feed their baby.

Types of feeding practices

There are a number of different feeding practices that can be adopted by parents.

  • Non-responsive feeding is parent-centered and pressure based. Baby is actively encouraged to eat more food until the parent thinks they should be done which undermines their capacity to recognize when they are feeling full.
  • Restriction feeding limits access to unhealthy food. While it might seem healthy to cut out junk foods entirely, this practice can create a ‘forbidden fruit’ scenario, and increase baby’s desire for those restricted foods.
  • Emotional feeding uses food to comfort or distract baby from negative emotions.  This teaches baby to eat for reasons unrelated to appetite can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food.
  • Unstructured permissive/indulgent feeding involves a disorganized eating environment with few limits around feeding. This practice ignores baby’s appetite cues which can create a confusing relationship with food.
  • Response to neophobia is exposure to a limited range of tastes and textures. This limits baby’s opportunities to learn about new foods.

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Your food parenting guide

Healthy feeding practices

Here are some practices that can set baby up for long-term healthy eating habits and behaviors.

  • You provide, let them decide. Offer baby a range of food and let them decide if they eat it and how much they should eat. Avoid pressuring baby to finish eating everything on a plate as this can lead to anxiety and a poor relationship with food and mealtimes.
  • Keep mealtimes happy and stress-free. Baby’s relationship with food begins as soon as they start eating solid food, so make sure it’s a positive experience.
  • Make mealtime distraction-free. Mealtimes should be all about the food. Remove unnecessary distractions such as television, phones, or overactive pets from the feeding environment so baby can concentrate on eating.
  • Bring baby to the table. Ensure baby is sitting comfortably and facing you and other family members. Eating is a social activity and babies are much more likely to eat something if the family is eating with them.
  • Respond to hunger and fullness cues. Baby will tell you when they are full or hungry so learn to respond to these cues appropriately.
  • Avoid unhealthy foods. Feeding nutrient-poor foods can lead to a vicious cycle of even poorer appetites and less interest in healthy options. 
  • Only offer food for hunger. Offering baby food for comfort, entertainment, or bribery can lead to long-term problems with emotional eating and overeating. 

Recognizing response feeding

Although babies can’t verbally tell us when they’re hungry or full, they show us with nonverbal cues. Classic cues include when a baby cries when they’ve woken up from a nap, or shake their head when a spoon’s headed their way. Responsive feeding is when parents acknowledge and respond to those cues with healthy food options. 

When parents fail to respond to a baby's hunger or fullness cues, baby can develop poor appetite control. Failure to respond to hunger cues can result in baby overeating for fear of not being offered food the next time they are hungry. 

Ignoring fullness cues and forcing baby to eat or pressuring them to finish what’s on their plate can be equally damaging . Force-feeding often makes mealtime unpleasant, causing baby to feel anxious about eating which can lead to food phobias or not wanting to eat at all. Continually ignoring fullness cues can also lead to poor self control and over eating. This can result in long-term health implications such as obesity risk and emotional eating.

Responsive feeding is simply about maintaining baby’s natural ability to regulate their appetite, and form the basis for all healthy feeding practices.

Signs that say, "I’m Hungry Mom"

Here are common cues of hunger parents should be aware of:

  • Reaches for the spoon
  • Points to the food
  • Gets excited when food is presented
  • Leans forward with mouth open
  •  Shows distress when cues aren’t listened to.

Signs that say, "Thanks but I’m Full"

It’s natural for parents to be worried about the amount of food and nutrients their little one is getting. But it’s important to listen to baby when they let you know they have had enough food (even if you don’t think they have had enough). 

Continuing to feed after baby has shown signs of fullness can lead to overconsumption and risk of obesity later in life. It’s important to learn baby’s fullness signs so they can keep their natural ability for appetite control.

Here are some common cues of fullness parents should be aware of:

  • Shakes head
  • Turns head away when the spoon is coming 
  • Pushes spoon away
  • Easily distracted
  • Indicates to get down from highchair.

Turning "yuk" into "yum"

Not all babies will gobble up the nutritious food you have provided for them straight away. In fact, it may take several tries (10 times or more sometimes!) before a new food is accepted.

Don’t get into a battle over broccoli, but do understand that consistency is the key here. Continue to offer the rejected food on other occasions and in different ways. Even playing with the food in question can be counted as an exposure in the very early stages. There’s no need to try and sneak it in or mix it with another preferred food.

Exposure and repetition are the keys to developing healthy eating preferences and habits. And as hard as it can be sometimes, try not to show any negative emotion when a food is rejected. 

First flavor faces

It’s normal for babies to display an element of surprise or even disgust as new foods are offered. Remember, this is the first time they have encountered these flavors and textures.

Focus on their willingness to continue eating rather than on their facial expressions. Don’t be tempted to limit baby’s diet to familiar and readily accepted foods as this can further cement a life-long preference for these foods, and can put baby at risk of developing nutritional deficiencies.

Practice makes perfect

Remember, parents have a huge  role to play in teaching baby all about the goodness of food! But it’s a learning experience for both parent and baby. Understanding that feeding practices and styles can have a life-long impact on baby’s development is the start of a healthy relationship with food.

Disclaimer: The information provided is the opinion of Good Feeding, it has not been evaluated by healthcare professionals, and is for educational purposes only.  Before starting any new foods or feeding practices, please consult your baby's healthcare professional.

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Creating healthy and happy eaters

  • You provide, let baby decide. You provide what foods are on offer, and baby decides when they have had enough
  • Keep mealtimes happy and stress free
  • Remove unnecessary distractions such as TV or devices
  • Ensure baby is sitting comfortably and facing other family members
  • Role model healthy eating at every opportunity.
  • Respond to hunger and fullness cues and leave behind expectations of how much you want baby to eat. 
  • Feed slowly, encouraging baby to eat and never resorting to bribery
  • Avoid unhealthy foods you know baby will eat to ensure they ‘just eats something’
  • Only offer food for hunger and not for any other reason

Disclaimer: The information provided is the opinion of Good Feeding, it has not been evaluated by healthcare professionals, and is for educational purposes only. Before starting any new foods or feeding practices, please consult your baby's healthcare professional.

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