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Food Parenting

What is Food Parenting?

Your parenting style is the way that you interact with baby every day. It forms an emotional climate that will shape baby’s attitudes, behaviours and beliefs. It includes all your behaviours and actions (both intentional and unintentional) and the choices you make now, will have a lasting impact. 

Parenting styles and more specifically, food parenting styles are currently a hot topic. Understanding the fundamentals of these concepts is vital so that you know where you and baby fit in and how to forge the best path moving forward. The four parenting styles
Your responsiveness refers to the degree to which you respond to your child’s needs in an accepting and supporting manner (it can also be referred to as your warmth). 

Your demandingness refers to the rules that you have in place for your child’s behaviour, your expectation that they will follow with these rules and the level of repercussions that ensue if the rules are broken (or in other words, your level of control). 

Researchers believe that parents should neither be punitive nor aloof and that ideally you should strive your best to develop rules for your child and be affectionate (diplomatic).

Food parenting

These same styles also help to shape your child’s food habits and are known as food parenting practices, or feeding styles. 

Eating is so much more than feeding your baby the right amount of nutrients. How you feed your baby is as important as what you feed them. By gently guiding your child’s relationship with food you can help to diversify their palate (allowing them to confidently accept new tastes and textures) and learn to recognise and respond to their natural hunger and satiety (fullness) cues. This helps to lay a foundation for life-long healthy preferences and behaviours. 

Diplomatic

Best described as: ‘love with limits’

A diplomatic approach nurtures an autonomous and self-confident eater. You decide when (meal times) and what (food choices available) your child eats, and they decide how much. This method encompasses control and warmth. By allowing the child to have the responsibility of deciding how much to eat the parent is allowing him to recognize and trust their natural hunger and fullness cues. This is vital as understanding hunger and satiety is one of the pillars for healthy eating habits and obesity prevention later in life!

Parent’s job:

What food and drinks are served:

Make one family meal, not different meals to suit everyone’s preferences. When you eat and serve a variety of healthy foods, your child will learn to eat these foods too. Your child will not learn to eat a variety of food if you only serve what he likes to eat. Don’t be discouraged if she does not like food on the first try. It can take at least 8-15 tastes before yuks turn into yum. 

To serve new foods:

Serve new foods in small amounts with familiar foods that are readily accepted. By doing this, the new foods are a little less daunting for your little one. In addition to this, you can try serving these new foods in a variety of ways to see which is best tolerated. Remember that it is normal for baby to be a bit surprised or even disgusted with any new food. Focus on their willingness to continue eating rather than their facial expressions. Limiting their diet by reverting back to familiar and readily accepted foods not only cements a life-long preference for those foods but also puts your baby at risk of nutritional deficiencies. This is a journey, so you can simply try the food another time.

When foods are served:

When children eat at set times, they are more likely to come to the table hungry and try new foods. If your child refuses a meal or does not eat anything in 10 – 15 minutes, calmly remove his food. Let them down from the table to play quietly while the rest of the family finishes their meal.

Where foods are served:

Children will eat healthier when you eat together at the table. Whenever you can, offer your infant the same foods as the rest of the family. You are an important role model. When baby sees you eating the same food they will be more likely to imitate you and try new foods.

Child’s job:

If and how much to eat from the food and drink available:

Let your child decide on how much he wants to eat. It’s normal for their appetite to vary from day to day. Appetite can vary depending where eating (for example, at home or at daycare, if your child is growing, physically active, tired or sick.) 

Controlling

Best described as: Parent dictates the rules

A controlling style is often accompanied by strict food rules laid down and enforced by the parent. Children are often instructed to ‘clean your plate’ and may also be bribed with food (like dessert) for doing so. This feeding style encourages the child to override their appetite and can eventually lead to overweight (little appetite control) and underweight (food phobias, pressure, stress).

Indulgent

Best described as: The ‘yes’ parent

An indulgent style is characterised by a lack of food boundaries where the parent easily gives into the child’s requests. Usually food choices and meal times are unstructured and the parent allows the child to have full control over all aspects of eating. While this sounds like a great way to encourage autonomy, most children thrive on routine and structure in order to make them feel safe. This style of feeding can result in an inability to self-regulate and as a result children may gain excessive weight or become picky eaters. 

Uninvolved: 

Best described as: Unstructured

Food and health are not at the top of an uninvolved parents list of priorities. You’ll find that the pantry and fridge are often near empty or aren't stocked with healthy food options. This style creates a fend-for-yourself feeling which can lead to food insecurities.

Your parenting style has a significant impact on your child’s early emotional development. 

Emotional development

When you minimize your child’s emotional expression or punish them for expressing negative emotions, you may cause them to be more emotionally reactive and less emotionally self-regulating. Let’s understand which emotions are experienced by your baby as they age:

0-3 Months

Primary emotions are instinctive responses to internal and external stimuli. They cry, groan, smile and coo depending on how they’re feeling. 

Primary emotions include: discomfort or contentment, positive or negative, pleasant or unpleasant.

3-7 Months

Secondary emotions develop between 3 and 7 months. At this stage, emotions are becoming more distinct as baby learns more about themselves and the world around them. They’re now able to anticipate the breast or bottle before feeding, self soothe and show excitement. 

Secondary emotions include: sadness, anger, fear, surprise and joy.

12 Months +

At this point emotions become more complex and sophisticated as your baby learns a sense of self and a relationship with others. Your baby will react to changes in routine, push away things they don’t want and may experience separation anxiety. 

Complex emotions include: pride, eagerness to please, embarrassment, guilt, and shame.

By now you should be starting to understand your parenting and feeding style a little better and know what emotions to expect from your little one. Let’s delve into emotions and eating responses.

Emotional eating

In an ideal world, we would only eat according to hunger. Unfortunately we do not live in an ideal world and many of us respond to our emotional states by reaching for food. Common emotional eating triggers include negative emotions like boredom or sadness, as many seek comfort in food. 

We learn to make this connection (between our emotions and food) from an early age. When a child is agitated or has hurt themselves, they are often consoled or rewarded with food. The more often we do this with our children, the stronger this association becomes. As time goes by, they learn to expect the food after any negative event and thus emotional eating is born. 

The way that you can help prevent this learned behaviour is by refraining from using food as a means to soothe your child or using food as a reward or punishment. While this is certainly easier said than done, there are definitely some practical ways that you can start reinforcing healthy food habits:

Avoid labelling food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’

    • This only perpetuates food guilt

Encourage children to identify their hunger and satiety cues 

    • A novel way to do this is to ask them if their tummy is hungry, or if their mouth is hungry. Tummy hunger is often true hunger, while mouth hunger is most likely a craving of sorts. 

Be a good role model 

    • Eat a variety of foods regularly
    • Be adventurous and try new foods with your child
    • Eat at the table with your family and avoid skipping meals

Create a routine for meal and snack times so your child knows when to expect food

    • This helps them to feel secure and prevents hunger ‘fear’

Speak openly and honestly about various styles of eating

Allow them to explore various eating styles and patterns to find the one best suited for them.

Responsive eating

Although your baby can’t verbally tell you when hungry or full, they can show you using nonverbal cues. Responsive feeding is when you acknowledge and respond to these cues with healthy food options. Responsive feeding is not about forcing baby to eat or pressuring them to finish what’s on their plate. Force feeding often makes mealtime unpleasant, causing elevated anxiety, and may lead to food phobias or not wanting to eat at all. 

This practice is crucial for supporting babies and children in developing appetite regulation and forms the basis for healthy feeding practices.

Signs of hunger at 6 to 12 months old:

    • Reaches for the spoon
    • Points to the food
    • Gets excited when food is presented
    • Leans forward with mouth open
    • Shows distress when cues aren’t listened to

Self-regulation is another important behaviour learned through responsive feeding. We often worry that baby is not eating enough (according to how much we think they should be having). Responsive feeding encourages you to honor your baby’s natural hunger and satiety cues, they know when to stop. Feeding for the sake of it leads to overconsumption and risk of obesity later in life. It is important to recognize the signs of satiety and foster the natural ability for appetite control.

Signs baby has had enough:

    • Shakes head
    • Turns head away when the spoon is coming 
    • Pushes spoon away
    • Easily distracted
    • Indicates to get down from highchair.

Healthy feeding practices

The following healthy feeding practices foster responsive parenting which in turn set foundations for long-term healthy eating habits and behaviours:

You provide, let him decide. Give baby a range of food and let baby decide when they have had enough. Avoid pressuring baby to finish or eat more as this can lead to anxiety and a poor relationship with food, food refusal and stressful mealtimes.

Keep mealtimes happy and stress-free. Baby’s relationship with food begins straight away, so make sure it’s a positive one! This will help eliminate anxieties around food which could otherwise result in fussy eaters or eating disorders later in life.

Keep mealtime distraction-free. Make mealtime all about the food in front of baby. Remove unnecessary distractions such as television, phones, or overactive pets from the feeding environment. 

Bring baby to the table. Ensure baby is sitting comfortably and facing you and other family members. Eating is a social activity and children are much more likely to eat something if the family is eating alongside them as well.

Respond to hunger and fullness cues. Baby will tell you when they are full or hungry. Avoid force feeding - it doesn’t matter how much you want baby to eat.

Only offer food for hunger. Offering baby food for comfort, entertainment, or as bribery can lead to long-term problems with emotional eating and overeating.

Avoid unhealthy foods. Feeding nutrient-poor foods can lead to a vicious cycle of even poorer appetites and less interest in healthy options later in life. A healthy baby will not go hungry or have disrupted sleep if they miss one meal, so do not force feed food just for the sake of getting baby to eat.

Disclaimer: The information provided is the opinion of Good Feeding, it has not been evaluated by healthcare professionals, and is for educational purposes only.  Before starting any new foods or feeding practices, please consult your baby's healthcare professional.

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