Responsive Feeding: Mealtime guidance that depends upon the feeder’s ability to read the eater’s cues in order to make the meal manageable, enjoyable and successful for the eater, without giving up developmentally appropriate structure and expectations.
The mealtime relationship is extremely dynamic and should evolve over time. In the beginning, the parent’s role is more permissive and supportive with food. Children are allowed to explore and branch out. This allows their tentative interests to develop and stabilize. However, we have found that being too permissive can actually lead to pickier eating and more mealtime “stand-offs,” and even impact weight gain. We also know that being too authoritative or involved can lead to refusals and difficulty with self-regulation.
The child should be comfortable with saying “no” to foods if they aren’t hungry or don’t feel safe, without fear of reprisal.
- Learning that they are loved despite the fact that they said “no” is extremely important. However, it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t experience the consequences of “no,” such as being hungry.
- They may show interest or refusal in a variety of ways that will change over time. You will need to pay attention now and as they mature.
- If the child is consistently refusing, the adult may need to re-consider the environment or expectations, so that they are both appropriate and achievable.
The adult should also be comfortable with saying “no” to behaviors and requests.
- If the situation isn’t safe, it is always appropriate for you to set limits.
- As hunger and trust are more established, mealtime expectations should begin to line up with expectations outside of meals. Ask yourself, “what would I do if this wasn’t food?”
- There are very valuable lessons that children learn from consequences. Protecting them from consequences of “no” by always setting up the situation so the answer is “yes” deprives the children of learning important lessons. For example, getting the child to eat every day by only serving highly preferred foods deprives the child of learning the feeling of hunger, as well as the possibility that some new foods are good.
Just as you wouldn’t expect an infant to drive a car or read a book, you would be disappointed if your teenager waited for you to change their clothes or put food in their mouths. It is appropriate to change your expectations as children mature.
- If your child is a new or hesitant eater, their abilities with food may look different than their abilities in other areas.
- Until their trust of food and eating becomes more stable, you may have different sets of expectations for food and for other areas, but it helps to be aware of the discrepancy and make very small steps to make them more similar.
- If a behavior is new and fragile, it needs more support. Once a behavior is more established, parents and caregivers can begin to shape it or incorporate it into an expectation.
- Patterns of interest and response will help you make future choices and determine when your child is ready for the next step.
Darling, N., & Steinberg, L. (1993). Parenting style as context: An integrative model. Psychological bulletin, 113(3), 487.