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How do children lose the ability to know when they’ve had enough?

How do children become overweight if they know how much to eat?

Do they lose the ability they were born with to self regulate their food intake?

When parents do their feeding jobs according to Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility, children become competent eaters.

A competent eater enjoys eating, comes to the table when called for mealtimes, learns to like the foods his parents like eating, and regulates the amount of food eaten based on hunger, appetite and satiety. Children are born wanting to eat and knowing how much to eat in order to have the body they were intended to have. When a baby is breastfed, we don’t know how much they are eating, and yet they stop when they are full and eat when they are hungry.

If we, as parents, don’t interfere with this ability to self-regulate, then children will grow in a constant manner and not deviate in any major way.

How do parents interfere?

Parents may have concerns that lead them to interfere with the ‘how much’ or ‘what’ their child eats. For example, if they are worried that their child is not eating vegetables, they may coax them with the well-known bribe of “Just eat 5 more peas and then you can have some yogurt”. Another example is not trusting that their child knows when they are still hungry and saying “Haven’t you had enough?” when they ask for a second helping.

Parents may interfere with a child’s self-regulation by not doing the job of what, where and when of feeding. If children are left to their own devices and not offered food at regular times throughout the day, they are more likely to overeat when they have the chance as they don’t know if and when they will get to eat their next meal. Or if they are not allowed to eat as much as they want at mealtimes, they might sneak food to eat in between times because they don’t trust they will get enough to eat. Pressure on children to eat when they are no longer hungry can also distort a child’s ability to self-regulate.

The good news is that when parents consistently and persistently do the what, where, and when of feeding with a child whose weight gain has been more than is natural, the child regains the ability to regulate their intake and their growth stabilises. For some parents it is difficult to start trusting a child’s appetite if they haven’t done so in the past. However, with support and education, it is possible and I have helped many parents do this. If the child doesn’t regain the ability to regulate their food intake, the parents may not be following through with the Division of Responsibility. They may be:

  1. Failing to provide structured meals and snacks,
  2. Letting the child graze on food or beverages between times,
  3. Interfering with how much the child eats.

Trust is the key. At first when parents follow the Division of Responsibility (DOR) the child’s eating tends to become more extreme and they eat even more than before. Once parents trust their child’s appetite, and accurately and consistently feed according to the DOR, an infant takes a matter of days to recover internal regulators; a toddler, weeks; a preschooler, a month or so; and the school-aged child, two or three months.

So when your child next says “I’ve had enough” or ”I want some more” just believe them.