We are born with the amazing ability to know how much we need to eat in order to grow and develop. This is part of our biological makeup. So a newborn infant feeds when he/she is hungry and takes the exact amount of breastmilk or formula that she needs to feel full and satisfied. As a parent, you can’t determine how much or how little your infant needs at each feed or over the whole day and night. in fact, for a breastfed infant you don’t know how much milk they are drinking. For a formula-fed infant, it is important to stop feeding when the infant shows that he has had enough and not to ‘try and get him to have just a bit more or to finish the little bit that is in the bottle’.
This inborn biological ability to know how much we need to eat doesn’t disappear when we start solids or even when we become toddlers. However it is something that can be overridden or diminished by trying to ‘get your child to eat’. Some of the ways that parents or carers try to ‘get a child to eat’ may be:
- Using food as a bribe – We’ve all heard or tried to ‘get a child to eat’ by saying “if you don’t eat your veges/meat you won’t get dessert”. The real message here is that the veges or the meat are the yukky foods and the dessert is the sought after reward.
- Using distractions such as the TV, DVD or music – the parent might spoon the food in whild the child is pre-occupied watching the screen or let the child eat in front of the screen. In both cases the child is distracted from the natural feelings of hunger or satiety (feeling satisfied). In this way the child may learn to overeat or get into the habit of eating in front of the TV.
- Making your child sit at the table long after they have finished eating – infants and young children give us clear signs when they have had enough to eat. They might close their lips, shake their head or push the food away. Finish the meal when your child has had enough. There is no point in getting her to sit there once she has finished eating in the hope that she will eat another mouthful or two.
Rather than using the methods above, I would suggest:
- Implement the ‘Division of Responsibility’ in feeding your child – this is a concept developed by Ellyn Satter, and American dietitian. This means that you provide the food for your child and it is up to the child to eat as much or as little as he wants.
- Put the food in the middle of the table and let each person serve themselves. For younger children, you could show them each dish and ask them if they want some. The main thing is that you respect your child’s decision and don’t ‘try and get them to eat’ what you want them to eat.
- Lead by example – eat with your child. You are the most important person in your child’s life, so seeing you eat the same food as you are offering her is going to be a powerful experience. You can’t expect them to eat vegetables, for example, if they rarely see you eating them, and that includes fathers too!
- Don’t talk about eating at the mealtime – your child knows when you are ‘trying to get them to eat’ and talking about eating can have the opposite outcome to what you want. For example, when you say ‘don’t you want to try the broccoli, it’s yummy’ your child picks up that you are trying to convince them to eat broccoli. They already know that if broccoli is on the table, you want them to eat it. There is no need to try and convince them. You want them to eat broccoli because they like it, not because they have been pressured into eating it.