Developing a Healthy Feeding Relationship with Your Child

Developing a healthy feeding relationship between a parent and child is extremely important and begins very early on in life. Positive or negative attitudes towards food are learned early on and often will be maintained throughout adulthood. Meal times can be happy, enjoyable, and social experiences or they can be stressful and frustrating for both parents and children. Power struggles are often developed around eating and can make meal times miserable for all involved.

Ellen Satter, a nutritionist and family therapist, has written extensively on the “Division of Responsibility” when it comes to feeding children. The parent decides “what” to prepare, “when” to prepare it and “where” the meal will be served. The child is responsible for how much is eaten and if anything is eaten at all. Research has shown that children are able to regulate there own feelings of hunger and will stop eating when they are full. This however will change if they are forced to eat specific portions determined by an adult. Providing variety within a meal is important and will allow children to make choices within a controlled environment.

It is never too late to develop a healthy “feeding” relationship with your child, however the sooner the better.

Within the parent’s responsibility of “what”, “when”, and “where” here are several suggestions to incorporate. Meals should be offered at set times as should snacks. Many families have had success with three set meals a day and two planned snacks. Depending on your child’s appetite this could be adjusted accordingly. Children should not be allowed to snack continuously throughout the day as this will interrupt their understanding of hunger and fullness. Depending on schedules, family meals are strongly encouraged. Children learn many things from observing adults and older siblings and eating is no different. Seeing what you eat and how you eat is extremely important.

When introducing new foods it is important to offer a familiar and preferred food at the same time. Do not be discouraged if the new food is not touched the first time, or maybe even the first few times. If children are not pressured and see others trying a food eventually they will try it. Sometimes they will try it and spit it out which does not always mean they do not like it. Keep offering it and do not force them to eat.

I often recommend preparing a container of a food you want to introduce to your child and keeping it in the refrigerator or freezer and then offering small amounts at several meals. This way you will not have to keep preparing the food and end up throwing it away. Children’s likes and dislikes will often change and this is normal.

It is also normal for children to eat more some days and less on other days.

When it comes to feeding, sometimes you can do everything right and your child will continue to have difficulty. Some of the signs to look for in a child who may have an underlying medical condition or physical limitations are: vomiting during or after meals, choking, gagging, coughing, difficulty transitioning to solid foods, nasal regurgitation, constipation or crying and irritability after meals. If your child displays any of these symptoms it is recommended that you discuss this with your pediatrician. A speech-language pathologist who specializes in oral-motor-feeding will also be able to make appropriate referrals if deemed necessary. Other minor things to look for may be drooling, difficulty with utensils, cups, straws and mouth stuffing. These behaviors could also be appropriately assessed by a speech-language pathologist who is trained in feeding.

One of the  great joys and responsibilities of parents is to feed their children. Depending on your child’s health, personality and your feeding strategies, mealtime can be rewarding, frustrating or even terrifying. While some may have more obstacles to overcome than others, feeding remains a complicated issue for many. With patience, guidance and willingness to change as well as a positive attitude towards eating you can have a healthy feeding relationship with your child.

Originally Published: Inside Westchester
February 2004, Vol. 3 No. 2, pg 22
Inside Healthy Living

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Isa Marrs

Isa Marrs is a board-certified speech-language pathologist who specializes in articulation, pragmatic language and feeding disorders in children. Read More