Is your child a fussy eater sometimes? Does your child protest against food while being fed or get cranky for food before the mealtime? Well, that is completely normal! It just means that you as a parent can adopt a new method called responsive feeding. Healthy, growing children have an intrinsic ability to identify their own dietary needs. This is an internalized system that helps them regulate their food and energy intake. As adults, we are able to tell when we are hungry and when we are full. Children can do the same and they indicate this via a change in behaviour or actions. Responsive feeding is the practice of being able to identify these cues and respond to them appropriately by either initiating or ending feeding.

What is Responsive feeding?

Responsive feeding is a two-way interactive process whereby a child’s mannerisms and behaviour during mealtimes is interpreted by the parent to respond to their needs. The behavioural cues could be verbal or non-verbal. An infant or toddler would have non-verbal cues where as a child older than a toddler would respond verbally. It includes closely monitoring the child’s reactions while being offered food, on stopping feeding and also when providing a choice of food items. Allowing the child to make an independent decision on their eating habits is a key part of responsive feeding.

Why is responsive feeding important?

A set dietary routine of scheduled meal timings and adequate portioning of food is something every parent should aim for. It is a very healthy practice to maintain but often trying to push for this routine can interfere with the child’s innate abilities of self-regulation. Mealtimes are not just about the intake of nutrients. It allows for development of various skills ranging from sensory and motor, to cognitive and executive function and of course self-regulation skills. As a parent, responding positively to their needs is an incentive for the child to be more engaging. Studies have shown that this method protects the child from being underweight or overweight owing to the nurturing of this self-regulation. These healthy meal time interactions can be made creative and fun in loads of ways and helps foster a bonding between parent and child.

Tips for successful responsive feeding

  • Let mealtimes be a singular activity without the distractions of gadgets, books or toys. It helps your child focus better on the task at hand – eating.
  • Do not engage in negative reinforcement such as scolding or punishing, nor should one plead, prod and bribe the child into eating. The pressure could lead to negative attitudes towards food and poor eating habits. It could also lead the child to over or under eat.
  • Do not allow the child to intake excessive amounts of food or drinks like milk and juice between meals. It leads not only to tooth decay but also interferes with healthy meal times.
  • To make sure the child is not just asking for food out of boredom, one should keep the child engaged in fun and productive activities between meals.
  • To understand your child’s cues, a little food should be given first and then seen if they ask for more. Do not give up on new items immediately let them take their time with the experimentation. If needed, a rejected food item can be re-introduced after a significant break to see if the child still does not want to eat it.

Responsive feeding can be time consuming at first, but be patient because the benefit of a healthier lifestyle for the child is worth the energy and time!