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What is Responsive Feeding? [+ 5 Ways to Practice It]

What is Responsive Feeding? (+ 5 Ways to Practice It)

Responsive Feeding: What It Is and What It Isn’t

You hear the buzz about responsive feeding, but do you really know what it is and how to use it to your child’s advantage?

Responsive feeding is based on a two-way relationship between you and your child. Your child communicates feelings of hunger and fullness (verbally or nonverbally) followed by an immediate response from you, such as feeding your child or ending a feeding.

To be good at responsive feeding, you need to monitor your child’s hunger and fullness by learning and recognizing her appetite cues.

For example, babies show tell-tale signs of hunger and fullness, but they’re not typically language-based cues. Toddlers can tell you when they are hungry and when they are full with their emerging language skills. Some toddlers can even sign hunger and fullness.

Older children can verbalize hunger and fullness, too, but may confuse boredom and emotions with true hunger.

As a parent, your job is to pay attention to these appetite cues so you don’t over-feed or underfeed your child.

When you respond promptly and accurately to your baby’s appetite signs, you show her warmth, love, and support. To develop her social and emotional health, your baby needs to know that she can count on you to meet her needs –when she needs them.

This foundation of trust is the most important aspect of the parent-child relationship at this young age.

When you respect your toddler’s fullness, you honor and sustain his natural-born appetite regulator. In other words, you preserve his native ability to recognize his body is full, and support his appropriate response to stop eating.

If you question your older child’s hunger (because she just ate lunch), you help her tune in to her appetite and identify hunger as the primary reason for eating. This helps her discern real hunger from emotional eating, or eating in the absence of hunger.

As kids get older, it may get more difficult to navigate eating habits and food choices for these reasons.

What are the Signs of Hunger and Fullness?

Responsive feeding sets the stage for helping your child sustain and regulate her appetite. And it begins with recognizing hunger and fullness in your baby.

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Signs of Baby’s Hunger:

Your baby fusses or cries.

Fussing or crying doesn’t always equal hunger. It can mean other things such as discomfort, tiredness or even boredom.

Your baby smiles, gazes or coos at you during a feeding.

Your baby is enjoying her food and wants to continue eating.

Your baby moves her head toward the spoon or bottle.

Your baby wants to eat.

Your baby reaches for or points to food.

As your baby gets a bit older, she will be clearer about her desire to eat. While pointing may not mean hunger (she might like a food and want to eat it, even though she just ate), it gives you the indication that she is learning to connect food with appetite and eating.

Your baby shows excitement when food is offered. 

Your baby is responding to food and this may be a sign she is ready to eat.

Your baby uses sounds, words, or signs to indicate hunger.

At the end of infancy, it gets easier to read your baby’s hunger cues, as she can communicate in multiple ways.

Signs of Baby’s Fullness:

Your baby decreases the rate of sucking or stops sucking.

Slowing the rate of eating is a sign that fullness is closing in. Try not to force the rest of the bottle, as this may overfeed her.

Your baby spits out the nipple.

A clear sign of being full and done with eating.

Your baby becomes easily distracted or pays more attention to the environment around her.

Generally, young children eat vigorously when they are hungry and consume a greater percentage of calories early in the meal. It’s important to minimize distractions at feeding sessions so that you can read your baby’s appetite and your baby can focus on eating.

Your baby moves her head away from food.

When your baby is older and eating solid foods, dodging the spoon or slouching away from food may be a sign of fullness.

 Your baby slows the pace of eating.

When your baby is eating solids and is approaching fullness, she will slow down the rate of her food consumption.

As your baby gets older, it becomes easier to recognize her fullness. For example, she may bat at the spoon, turn her head away, clench her mouth shut, shake her head to say no, play with food, throw it, or just simply say “no” or “all done.”

What is Responsive Feeding? (+ 5 Ways to Practice It)

What is Non-Responsive Feeding?

Non-responsive feeding is the opposite of responsive feeding. Unfortunately, non-responsive feeding is a common thing. (Just look at the picture above!)

I remember my first big speaking engagement ten years ago. I showed a picture of a baby sitting in a bouncer with a bottle propped up for feeding.

The bottle was surrounded by rolled towels…an effort to prevent the bottle from rolling out of the baby’s mouth.

There were gasps from the audience.

I showed a picture of a toddler sitting in a highchair alone, while the mom was on the telephone in the next room.

There were heads shaking back and forth and tongues tsk-tsk-ing.

Non-responsive feeding can occur in two ways:

  1. You aren’t around or engaged with your baby or child during feeding.
  2. You are ignoring his or her appetite signals.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re on the phone, doing laundry or washing dishes. The point is when it’s time to feed your child, it’s time to engage, not disengage.

When it’s time to feed your child, it’s time to engage, not disengage. #fearlessfeeding #lovewithlimits #raisehealthyeaters Click To Tweet

In the case of ignoring appetite signals, I see this most commonly in the infant and toddler years. Parents may ignore fullness, pushing the spoon into baby’s mouth to get him to finish the contents of the baby food jar.

In this example, babies may be pushed to eat beyond their appetite. (This is one of the main arguments against spoon feeding, and for baby-led weaning.)

On the opposite side, parents may not respond by providing meals or snacks when their child is truly hungry. This may lead a child to feel desperate to eat, and lose control of eating when food is available, and perhaps overeat.

Not getting regular meals and snacks is a risk for under-eating, too.

Non-Responsive Feeding is Dangerous Territory

Researchers have looked at non-responsive feeding and its impact on health.

Most of the research indicates that when appetite signs aren’t acknowledged and responded to appropriately, you run the risk of overriding your child’s ability to regulate his appetite.

For example, your baby is done eating. He pulls off the bottle and turns his face away from it. However, there are 2 more ounces left in the bottle and you’d really like him to finish it.

You put the bottle back in his mouth and encourage him to drink it.

You may think: What’s wrong with two more ounces? When you push your baby to finish (the bottle, the baby jar of food, or the plateful of dinner), you override that internal barometer about which I’ve been talking.

The one that regulates your child’s appetite. In other words, you ignore the FULL factor.

Repeatedly encouraging more food intake, beyond fullness, while ignoring these signs is training your baby or child to overeat. It’s being non-responsive with feeding.

Other research tells us that children who aren’t fed in a responsive manner are at higher risk for unhealthy weight gain. When children aren’t good at regulating their appetite, they can overeat, eat as an emotional response, and misinterpret hunger.

If you’ve ever met an adult who is on and off diets, constantly hungry or never hungry, then you’ve probably met someone who somehow lost connection with their internal appetite regulator.

This may be due to non-responsive feeding in childhood, or another factor like chronic dieting.

5 Ways to Practice Responsive Feeding

  1. Look at your child when feeding her.

Eye contact and touch are two ways you can connect with your child during feeding. When you are connected, you will be better able to recognize your child’s appetite signals and respond to them quickly.

  1. Notice her subtle signs of hunger and fullness.

If you have a baby, the signs of hunger and fullness aren’t always obvious. You will need to pay close attention and figure them out along the way.

Before you know it, you’ll recognize your baby’s signs. Maybe you have a “crier,” a “rooter,” or a perhaps a baby who flails her arms when hungry. Try to connect your baby’s actions to patterns of hunger and fullness.

  1. Respond to signs of hunger by giving food.

Once you recognize your child’s overt or covert hunger signals, give those signs some love and attention. Acknowledge them and act accordingly. In other words, feed your child.

  1. Respond to fullness by stopping the feeding.

On the other hand, if you are aware that your child is full (indicated verbally or non-verbally), then it’s time to end the meal or feeding session. If you’re a mama that worries your child didn’t eat enough, it’s time to pull out your faith card.

Have faith your child knows how much to eat and when to stop eating. Remember, all children are born with this sense and ability. Our parenting actions can mess it up. Really.

The other good news? There’s more than one meal a day – in fact, there are multiple opportunities for your child to eat. Trust that he’ll make up any gaps along the way.

  1. Use your monitoring skills.

The more you are aware of how well, and what, your child is eating throughout the day, the better equipped you are to respond to pleas of “I’m hungry!” or “I’m full!”

Monitoring simply means you know what’s going on with your child’s eating. It can increase your ability to stay responsive, attentive and appropriately reactive through feeding.

So tell me, are you a responsive feeder, or is this an area you want to work on?

The nourished child podcast #68: Differently wired

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  1. I love this post and your podcast! I try to be an authoritative, responsive feeder, but right now I’m struggling with my 3 year old. He is going through the phase where he only wants to eat grains (oats, breads, crackers, pasta), cheese, and peanut butter. I always offer a fruit, vegetable, and/or protein in a small quantity, but lately it is getting thrown away more than eaten. I’m trying to be patient (and I know I have a long way to go), but how do you teach or encourage variety? Just stay the course? What about having him take a “trip around his plate” having a bite of each of the foods offered before getting more of what he wants (bread)? ALSO, he doesn’t eat much at dinner and then says he’s hungry when we’re putting him to bed. During dinner, we let him know that this is his chance to eat and there will be no more food until breakfast time. We always tell him he had a chance to eat dinner and that the next time to eat will be breakfast time. He’s also waking at night more, and I suspect he is hungry, because he hasn’t eaten a descent meal/snack since the previous afternoon. I’m hesitant to give him a bedtime snack, because he didn’t eat his dinner and the bedtime process starts a mere hour after finishing with dinner. Please help!

    1. how do you teach or encourage variety? Just stay the course? YES! Stay the course…bring that variety to the table every day. Young children gravitate to carbs — they’re tasty and and give a pop of energy. You can change up when they show –ie, they could show up toward the end of the meal, after protein, etc, or you could introduce grains he hasn’t had yet. I think it’s fine to encourage a taste and exploration of all foods offered as long as it’s not perceived as pressure. If you’re holding out the bread until he eats the veggies, then that is setting up a situation that could be perceived as pressure or rewarding. As far as not eating much at dinner — this is pretty typical for toddlers. You can look at the earlier part of the day, and make sure he isn’t snacking too close to dinner or eating too much. you could delay dinner by 1/2 hour to build a better appetite and drop the need for a night time snack, or you could offer a night snack on the regular (like a cup of milk before bed). Some of this is trial and error to see which tweaks work best for your child.

      1. Thanks for the tips! Trying to be as patient as I can. It is hard when he regularly wakes up at 5 AM hungry, because he doesn’t eat much for dinner :-/. I want to try more family style dining as you’ve suggested elsewhere.

        1. Not sure how old your child is, but have you thought of a nutritious snack (something like a bowl of cereal or other unexciting option) before bedtime? That might help in the interim, plus letting him know how dinner will play out. More autonomy with family style meals helps a lot of kids (and their parents).