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 a child's relationship with food. It has the power to influence both the short and long-term health of a child and establish healthy eating practices that will last them a lifetime.
Feeding fantastic futures
Most of us know that children need good nutrition to optimise growth and development. However, what may come as a surprise is that how we feed our children is in fact just as
important as what we are feeding.
Food parenting is a practice that 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 they all ultimately lay the foundations for life long food preferences and behaviors. Moulding these preferences and behaviours in the right way, parents have the ability to grow healthy confident eaters who have a healthy respect for all foods.
For example, we are all born with a natural preference for sweet tastes. And it is no secret that young children tend to shy away from bitter or unfamiliar foods. However, with positive food parenting and feeding experiences we can help children to become more accepting of a wide range of foods, even those that are unfamiliar or more bitter in taste..
We also inherently understand how to regulate how much food we’re consuming. By nurturing and respecting those hunger and fullness cues from a young age, children are given the
opportunity to learn how to regulate their intake, minimising the risk of a
lifelong battle with over-eating.
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.
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
- Diplomatic: This feeding style involves a division of responsibility between the parent and child at mealtimes. The parent guides and teaches their child about food, and together, they learn to recognize their own 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 can help to prevent obesity later in life.
- Indulgent: If a parent easily gives in to the child's food requests, they’re engaging in an indulgent feeding style. There is a lack of food boundaries and little 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 are often afraid to try new foods.
- Controlling: This style has a heavy focus on rules, where a child 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 phobias and heightened stress around eating.
- 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.
Your food parenting guide
Healthy feeding practices
Here are some practices that can set babies and children up for long-term
healthy eating habits and behaviors.
- Adopt a Diplomatic style whereby you provide, let them decide. At
any given meal, the parents role is to decide and provide what is on
offer, when and where. It is then the child's role to decide if they eat it
and how much they should eat, without pressure.
- Keep mealtimes happy and stress-free. A child’s relationship with
food begins as soon as they start eating solid food, so make sure it’s
a positive experience from the very beginning.
- 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.
- Include at the family table. Eating is a social activity and children are
much more likely to eat something if the family is eating with them.
- Be a positive role model. Don’t underestimate the power of being a
positive role model. Make healthy food options the normal in your
- Respond to hunger and fullness cues. Even young infants can tell
you when they are full or hungry so learn to recognise and respond
to these cues appropriately.
- Avoid constant snaking and/or reliance on 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.
Practice responsive 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.
Emotions play a big role in the relationship a child creates with food.
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.
If we’re not careful, from a young age children can learn to eat in response to their emotional states. That’s why it’s important for parents to understand their child's eating patterns and be sure baby is eating to satisfy hunger, and not for another reason.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of soothing children with food. If a newborn is agitated, it is a parents role to generally respond by breast or bottle feeding. It can therefore be tempting if an older child is upset to soothe them with food. However, if we constantly offer food for reasons other than hunger, we can inadvertently foster an emotional dependence on food, also known as an emotional eater.
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.
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.
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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.