Responsive Feeding

Reading hunger cues

Building a healthy relationship with food comes at a very early age. Regulating eating and hunger is innate from birth, and although babies cannot tell you they are hungry or full in words, they can certainly tell you in many other ways. Tuning in takes some practice, but committing to Responsive Feeding is setting your child up for a healthier life and a healthier relationship with food.

You provide, Child Decides

“You provide child decides” is a well-known mantra now in feeding practices, which is fantastic. Children can regulate their eating needs if we let them. They are ofcourse free from the chains that bind us to our busy lives; they are free from routine, life pressures and emotional influences, they are just all about the pure fundamentals of adequate sleep, regular healthy bowel movements, love/joy, hot/cold, hydration and nutrition for growth. Oh if only!! What a time.

Innate Body Cues

Feeding healthy babies responsively early on begins that respect for their innate body cues, ensures they are not overeating unnecessarily and allows them to maintain control by not introducing negative emotional associations with eating. They are less likely to establish non-hungry eating habits, be able to stop eating when they are full and have healthier body weights.

Asking a baby to override and ignore their body cues and self-regulation by “finishing the bottle” for convenience or by “putting them on the breast to get them back to sleep” or “because you want to keep them quiet”, is not an ideal introduction to feeding and eating.

We have all done it, but at times, we may need to reflect on our own motivations and ask, are they hungry? This applies to all stages of early life in children and ofcourse for us as adults.  Sadly, our lives become embedded into routines as we age and we begin eating for a whole bunch of other sometimes complicated reasons that are not from hunger or innate need.

Where to start?

The main features of responsive feeding are:

  1. Watch for cues.

  2. Respond warmly and quickly.

  3. Feed baby the right food for her age and stage.

  4. Watch for cues of fullness and let her decide when to stop.

  5. Focus on being warm and loving.

  6. Ensure eating environments are free from distractions.

  7. Be present and focused during meal/eating times, to create a warm, engaged and positive experience.

Crying for hunger is often a later sign of hunger, so it can be tricky to tell in the first 6 months if a baby is hungry or crying for another reason. Some of the first 6 months breast or bottle feeding hunger signs to look for are:

  • Moving hand to mouth

  • Making sucking noises

  • Moving to your finger if you touch her on her face with a sucking motion “root”

  • Flexing arms and legs/clenching fists

I am full signs include:

  • Turning head away and close mouth when offered milk

  • Unlatching/stop starting often

  • Spitting out milk

  • Falling asleep

  • Becoming increasingly agitated

Weaning and Introducing Solids

Babies do need to be fed on demand, but as they grow into weaning it is ideal to begin some routine around eating. This is to ensure that when it comes time to eat, they are hungry.  If they are grazing all day, they will struggle to get the sense of an empty stomach. So again, the motto of “you provide child decides” into a regular meals structure.

Signs your baby is hungry on solids:

  • Gets excited seeing food

  • Focuses on food and you can see she is following it with her eyes

  • Leaning towards food and opens her mouth

Signs your baby is full on solids:

  • Playing with the food

  • Easily distracted and fidgeting

  • Spitting out and turning head away when offered food

What if you have not started?

It is never too late to start responsive feeding practices. This approach is suitable at all stages of childhood.

What if your child is in care most of the time?

The reality for many is that their child is in day care or family care for most of their day. If this is the case, speak to your centre or carer about your philosophy on responsive feeding and ensure they are aligned. Many early learning centres have adopted responsive feeding practices into their standard centre and day routines, many have more strongly adopted it into their child autonomy foundations by letting the child decide when to get their lunch box and creating a safe quiet place for them to eat when they are hungry.

Fussy Eating and Responsive Feeding Therapy

Healthy babies and toddlers are hard wired to be fussy eaters. They are learning new textures, flavours, learning how to swallow, chew and spit. Their taste buds are growing and they are moving from a really bland/flavourless breast or formula milk to foods with incredibly strong natural flavours in comparison. They are going to spit and reject foods; they may take a while to enjoy and the common “attempt” timeline is up to 10 times before they may eat something with no fuss. They are also establishing autonomy and know that food is one thing they can make decisions around.

We worry as parents and want to “over-compensate” in fear they will not get enough food in, but adding flavour's that we enjoy as adults, or giving them less desirable food choices, forgetting their tastes are still bland. We stress and introduce anxiety into eating without even being aware of it, because we are concerned and loving parents.

Less worry and stress at mealtimes for all is what we are aiming for in responsive feeding practices. No emotions other than warmth, love, and positive engagement; just watching, being quick on a response for hunger or fullness and again, you provide child decides. 

However, if you do have concerns about your child’s eating behaviour’s, you should consult your GP. There are speech therapists and occupational therapists that specialize in working with parents around Responsive Feeding Therapy if that is an appropriate path decided between you and your GP and/or paediatrician.

Here is a resource that may be a helpful reminder on tackling fussy eating

More resources on eating with joy

And some signs you need some help

More reading on Responsive Feeding Therapy