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What’s Your Feeding Style?

What's your feeding style? Learn about the different feeding styles and how they influence your child's eating and weight.

What’s Your Feeding Style?

You have a hair style, a fashion style you emulate, a style of walking and talking, and more.

You even have a feeding style.

Feeding is arguably one of the most time-consuming and grueling jobs of parenthood.  Often thankless, and plagued with parental insecurity and low confidence, parents struggle and muddle through the process of feeding their children. 

The effort to feed a child can be overwhelming. Think about all the planning, procuring, preparing, serving, and cleaning up that goes along with feeding a family. It’s a lot!

Here is a sobering statistic: throughout an 18 year childhood, a parent will probably feed their child over 28,000 times (assuming they provide the recommended age-appropriate meals and snacks). 

What is a Feeding Style?

Researchers suggest that feeding styles, or the attitudes and actions a parent uses in the process of feeding their child, closely mirrors their parenting style. Did you know that each parent has a style of their own when it comes to feeding?  And while one style is generally used most of the time, feeding styles can overlap and mingle.

Our feeding style also tends to mimic our own experiences as a child. They are deeply ingrained, and our “go to” method for feeding our own children.

In other words, your feeding style reflects your childhood experiences with food and eating. 

Your feeding style warrants attention. Not only are food and nutrition important considerations in the health of your child, the magnitude of feeding interactions throughout your child’s life is equally, if not more, important.

Last, you likely have one feeding style that is prevalent in your day to day feeding interactions with your child, however, we can all dip into each and every one of these styles from time to time. For example, when your stressed and busy, you might be neglectful in feeding your child. When you’re in party mode, you may be permissive. When your child is picky and underweight, you might find yourself becoming more authoritarian in feeding.

Four Feeding Styles

There are four feeding styles recognized in the scientific literature, and more recently these are being relooked at and redefined as food parenting. In fact, I have taught a course for nutrition professionals to help them understand this new material.

You’ll have to read to the bottom to get to the most positive feeding style for nourishing children — and the one that you’ll want to start working toward.

Authoritarian Feeding Style

This style is also known as a “parent-centered” feeding approach. In the realm of feeding, this style is associated with “The Clean Your Plate Club,” where rules about eating predominate, from trying foods to completing a meal.

It can look like this:

Dessert is contingent upon eating dinner. Parents plate the food for their children. Eating is directed by the parent, such as take another bite or finish your food, rather than self-directed by the child and his appetite.  

The child may not have much say in food choices, and his food preferences and appetite may be ignored by the parent’s wishes about his eating. Children may lose a sense of their appetite and an ability to regulate it well. They may overeat to comply with parental requests to eat more or finish the plate of food. They may eat less than they need because they are pushed or pressured too much. Weight problems, both underweight and overweight, are associated with this feeding style. 

Permissive Feeding Style

This feeding style is also known as the lax or loose style of parenting around food. I often refer to the permissive parent as “The ‘Yes’ Parent.”  

A parent with this style feeds their child in a similar fashion: even though “no” or limitations may be the first response to extra food requests or treats, “yes” ultimately reigns.  

The classic example of this is the mother who is attempting to manage the vocal child in the grocery store who wants candy at the checkout stand.  He begs and begs, hearing, “no, no, no…well….okay, I guess so.”  

Children raised with a permissive style of feeding have a tough time self-regulating their intake of food, particularly around indulgent foods like sweets. I frequently see a lack of structured meals and snacks, as well as a lack of food boundaries.

Children may become overweight, as research shows that there are few limits on calorie-dense foods.

Neglectful Feeding Style

This feeding style is less studied in the literature, but as a practitioner, I have seen it in action. A parent who has an uninvolved feeding style is often ill-prepared in the food department. They may not shop for food regularly. Cabinets and refrigerators may be empty or lacking in a variety of food. There may be no plan for meals, or meals may be left to the last minute.

Food and eating may lack importance to the parent, and that may transfer to feeding their child. Children who experience this feeding style may feel insecure about food, and unsure about when they will have their next meal, or if they will like it, and whether it will be enough.  

These children may become overly focused on food and frequently question the details around mealtime.

Authoritative Feeding Style

I call this the “Love with Limits” feeding style, because it promotes independent thinking and self-regulation within your child, but also sets boundaries within which your child is expected to operate.

The authoritative feeder determines the details around the meal (what will be served, when it will happen, and where it will be served), but allows the child to decide if they will eat what is prepared, and how much they will eat.  This called The Division of Responsibility, coined by Ellyn Satter.

Trust in your child — that he can recognize his hunger and fullness signals and eat the amount of food to satisfy those cues — forms the basis of this feeding style. Food boundaries or limits also compose the foundation of the authoritative feeding style.

Children raised this way around food and eating tend to be leaner, good at self-regulating their food consumption, and feel secure with food and eating, according to the research.  In fact, the most current research advocates this style of parenting/feeding as an effective childhood obesity prevention approach.

 


So, what’s your feeding style and how is it affecting your child?

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  5. This is a great post! I have an 11 month old son and both my husband and I are “learning” to be authoritative parents. You hit it right on when you mention the balance between having boundaries yet maintaining trust. Thank you for the wonderful guidance and reminding me how many more meals I get to serve my son before he turns 18 (I probably have 27,000 to go)!

    1. Thanks for your comments, Ashley. Yes, it can daunting when you think about the sheer impact feeding has on a child’s life! Stay tuned for how you can become an authoritative feeder!

  6. Great post! I think this is such an important topic for parents and many don’t even realize how their actions affect their children. So great to have experts in this field educating the masses!
    -jessica

    1. Thank you, Jessica! Yes, if we can influence parents early on, then hopefully we can prevent some of the feeding techniques that may be supporting weight discrepancies.