We all possess an intrinsic wisdom of how to best nourish ourselves. Although most adults have become extremely disconnected from their body’s own signals and have lost touch with when to eat and how much food they truly need. This disconnect from hunger/satiation cues can start very early in life if babies are introduced to solid foods with someone else dictating how much they should be eating. When given the opportunity and presented with healthy options, babies know how much to eat and which foods they need to properly nourish themselves.
This is why we shouldn’t convince babies to have "just one more bite." This can be especially tempting with single serving purées. When portioned out in a specific amount, it can be easy to believe that your baby needs or should consume precisely that much. This causes parents to coerce babies into finishing the whole jar by using tricks like “open up, here comes the airplane”.
Trying to get babies to eat more than they want to can lead to power struggles, meal time battles, and picky toddlers. More importantly for their future, it can cause them to become out of tune with their own critical cues of hunger and satiation, which can lead to obesity and a life long unhealthy relationship with food.
I try to get parents to change their thinking from “feeding” their children to “offering them food.”
BABY KNOWS BEST
When observing babies who are breastfeed on demand, it’s clear that they know exactly when they’re hungry and when they’re full. If I keep my son at my breast longer than he wants and I miss his cues, he’ll bite my nipple to get my attention. He knows when he’s finished and I wouldn’t be able to get him to have more than he wants.
An exclusively breastfed baby exhibits the same eating patterns as an adult right from the beginning. They eat different amount at different times, for different reasons. Sometimes they’ll have full meals, sometimes just a snack. They’ll breastfeed because they’re bored, or for comfort when they want to feel good. Just like us.
Formula Fed Babies
Not convincing a baby to eat more can become even more important if they were fed formula prior to starting solids. Breastfed babies are offered the breast to feed themselves and they determine the amount consumed. When babies are formula fed it’s the parents that decide the amount consumed, and it can be tempting to encourage a baby to have “just a little more” when they start showing signs of disinterest before the bottle is finished.
When starting solids it’s crucial to let formula fed babies reengage their own satiation cues by being in complete control of how much they eat. Formula fed babies are often more accustomed to having a fuller stomach, so they may be more likely to eat more food when starting solids, causing them to throw up. Parents can get upset by this, but observe a baby who throws up when eating and you’ll see that they are very rarely bothered by it. Unless a baby is sick, throwing up for them is not the same as it is for an adult, as it isn’t coupled with nausea, queasiness, and malaise. Throwing up when starting solid food is ok, and actually serves as a beneficial way for babies to understand the limits of their stomach.
Baby-led weaning is a method of feeding that skips purees and gives babies safe finger foods right from the start. This puts them in charge of deciding when to stop eating. If an exclusively breastfed baby dictates how much they consume, why do we suddenly think that we must take over when they start solids? Touching and being directly engaged with food plays such a vital role in our level of satisfaction. When a baby begins on solids, it’s actually more about exploring food than actually eating it. That’s one of the many benefits that baby led weaning offers.
RECOGNIZING SIGNS OF FULLNESS
Recognizing the signs a baby or toddler exhibits when reaching fullness is very useful. Even though they are in control with finger foods, it helps to look for signs of fullness because when they stop eating, they usually start smashing and throwing food around more. Less food goes in their mouths, more food goes on the floor, and things can get a little messy. While I promote food exploration, there is definitely a point in the baby-led meal where it can turn from exploring while eating, to just playing with the food. As soon as that happens, it's best to clear their tray.
When your baby starts turning their head from the spoon, not opening their mouth anymore, and losing interest, the meal should end. Do not be tempted to continue spoon-feeding until the jar is finished. Even if there is just “one more bite”.
If your child won't eat anymore at a meal, take a break and try again when they might be more receptive. Your job as a parent is just to offer healthy choices at regular intervals, but it's up to them to eat. Forcing a child to eat something they don’t want to can lead them to develop negative associations with certain foods. They might begin rejecting other foods just because they have a similar texture or colour. Some days they'll eat more, some days they'll eat less. They may love something one day, but not the next. The same thing happens with adults, our tastes can change from day to day.
Keep offering foods even if they’ve been rejected in the past. Serving a wide variety of foods will help broaden your child’s palate. If you have a picky child you may fall into the rut of serving similar foods time and time again because they “don’t like” other foods. The less they are exposed to, they less likely they will be to explore different foods when given the chance.
Puree / spoon feeding
If you decide to start your baby on purees, there are still some approaches you can use from baby-led weaning that will help engage your baby in the process of mealtime. I highly recommend putting a spoonful of the puree on your baby’s tray before you begin feeding. Yes, it can be messy and they will probably wipe it everywhere, but it allows them to get familiar with what they are about to consume. This becomes even more valuable if you are changing flavours. Put a spoonful down so they can prepare for a new texture, colour and flavour. Swapping from prune puree to chicken & sweet potato without warning may cause them to become distrustful of the food. They may like both flavours, but not being prepared for the change could throw them off and cause them to reject it.
If your child is hesitant to taste new things, try introducing new foods in small amounts. Offer just one or two bites at a time and put new foods alongside familiar ones. A child is more likely to become overwhelmed by a big pile of unfamiliar food.
Do not make a big deal about offering new foods. Act as if it’s no big deal if they eat a food or reject it. Try not to congratulate them or say "good job” when they eat something new or something that they normally don’t like. Do not praise them for eating a lot of food. It’s fine if they want to, but associating praise with consuming food may lead some children to overeating for the sake of acknowledgment.
For safety, always watch your child when they are eating and stay near, but don't hover over them in anticipation. Being overly concerned may teach them that what they chose to eat holds too much power. They may use this power to reject new foods as a way of asserting their independence.
If you say “Here is some asparagus for you to try again. I know you didn’t like it last time, but I want you to try just a bite”, it makes the asparagus a big deal. Instead, just put a bit of asparagus on their plate with the rest of their food. If they eat it, great- if not, try again another time.
If you have a child that doesn’t seem interested in food, try to make the environment relaxed and minimize distractions around mealtime. Keep mealtime just for food: no toys, playing, or cartoons. A noisy room can cause a child to lose interest in the food and removing distractions will allow them to tune into their cues of satiation. Let them concentrate on their food and try not to rush them when they’re eating to help lessen the likelihood of under or overeating.
Just starting solids?
Whether using baby-lead weaning, purees or a combination, understanding how to ‘let baby lead’ is crucial for helping them establish healthy eating habits right from the beginning. Baby Knows Best: An Intro To First Foods covers all methods of solid introduction and will help you make an educated decision about the method that feels right for you and your family.