Intuitive Eating for babies
Among the many hopes and dreams I have for my daughter, one is that she be an intuitive eater. As someone who has suffered from a negative relationship with food in the past, and who sees people all the time who struggle with chronic dieting, obsessive thoughts of food, and body image issues, I sincerely hope that she never has to deal with any of these things. Because of this, I sought out methods of feeding my daughter (let’s call her “E”) that would start her on the path towards being an intuitive eater from the very start…or rather, that wouldn’t interfere with the inner intuitive eater she has been from birth.
When E was nearing the recommended 6 month mark for starting solids, I learned about a method of infant feeding that seemed so in tune with Intuitive Eating, that I just had to give it a try. It’s called Baby Led Weaning (BLW). First, I should mention that “weaning” refers to the British term which basically means the introduction of solids, not the American English term which means giving up breastfeeding or bottle feeding. This method of infant feeding shies away from pureed “baby foods,” and encourages you to offer normal, adult foods (of appropriate size and texture) to your baby instead.
Offering babies foods in their natural form, rather than pureed into mush, allows them to experience not only the flavor of the food being eaten, but also the texture, mouthfeel, etc.. And perhaps the part of BLW that I most appreciate is that it encourages a more “hands off” approach to feeding, in which babies are allowed to eat as much or as little as they desire based on their hunger in that moment, with no pressure to eat any specified amount. Sometimes this means that the baby will simply sit there and play with the food, or maybe just take a lick of it, and that’s okay.
On the contrary, when spoon feeding purees, there is a tendency to want the baby to finish whatever amount has been prepared or is in the jar, and that’s where coaxing and airplane-flying-into-the-hangar tricks start coming into play. Well-intentioned parents do this because they want their little one to get lots of the super healthy, organic, spinach and sweet potato puree they so lovingly prepared in their own kitchen, but it doesn’t honor that baby’s hunger and satiety when she is turning away and mom or dad keeps pushing the spoon in her face. This can set the stage for years of “food fights,”where eating becomes an unpleasant experience for baby, and she comes to the table ready for battle, rather than calm and prepared for an enjoyable meal.
This worked out great for us for the first six months, when eating solid foods was seen as mostly just for fun and breastmilk was still providing the majority of her nutrition (the rhyme, “Food is for fun, until age one” was basically my mantra!). Once she turned a year old, however, I suddenly felt an immense amount of pressure to get her to eat more consistently, and to eat the foods I knew she needed (such as iron-rich foods, because she was found to be slightly iron deficient). As a result, I found myself employing little tricks to get her to eat, such as putting tomato sauce on almost everything, or sneaking bites of food in her mouth when she wasn’t paying attention. While these tricks may have worked occasionally in the short term, meal times were becoming more and more stressful, and I didn’t like the path we were going down. Finally, I sat down and read from Ellyn Satter’s book Child of Mine. I already knew about the basic philosophy of Ellyn Satter towards child feeding, but reading this book I found so much more wisdom than I could ever hope to paraphrase in this blog post!
In case you’re not already aware, the over-arching philosophy that Ellyn Satter advocates is the “division of responsibility.” Parents are responsible for the what, when, and where of eating. This means providing a balanced assortment of food (the “what”), on a fairly regular, reliable schedule so that the child can trust that food will be available at regular intervals (the “when”), and in a comfortable, non-stressful setting (the “where”). The child, on the other hand, is responsible for the how much, if any, of eating. This means that once the food is presented to the child, the parent need not stress about how much or how little she has eaten, because that is not the parents’ responsibility. Parents must instead trust their child’s own inner signals (their little intuitive eater within) to guide their choices in terms of quantity, as well as what items are chosen from the plate. If left to their own devices, and provided with a wide assortment of food choices, children will generally self-regulate quite well. One meal she may not eat much, or may choose foods from mostly one food group, but over the course of a few days, she will increase her intake to meet her needs, as well as choose what types of foods she may have lacked in previous meals.
Reading about this, and reminding myself of this philosophy has really helped to make meal times more pleasant. And, I swear, it feels like E is eating more, and a greater variety as well! A few other tips I’ve been following from Satter’s book are as follows:
- All foods are placed on a plate or in a bowl in appropriately-sized pieces for E. This includes any dessert I was planning on giving her. Previously, I had waited until the end of the meal to give E something sweet (I was afraid she would fill up on fruit or other sweets before touching anything else), but now it’s all there on the same plate. And I’ve been amazed to find that sometimes she’ll actually finish the vegetables or protein and leave some fruit or piece of cookies behind!
- Eating together as a family is important for the child to get used to behaving appropriately at meal time, as well as to provide an opportunity for parents to model balanced eating, so whenever possible, we try to all be eating at the same time. We’ve also removed the tray from E’s highchair and push her all the way up to the table so that she is truly at the table with us.
- I try to feed E most meals and snacks while seated in her highchair (or at least sitting somewhere). Just like for adults, it’s difficult to eat mindfully when multitasking or eating on-the-go, so it’s good to establish this habit early.
As E grows, I’m sure we’ll encounter some more challenges when it comes to feeding, but I believe that with the foundation provided by Baby Led Weaning, as well as a firm belief in Ellyn Satter’s division of responsibility, we’ll get through it unscathed and E will continue on the path towards becoming (or remaining!) an intuitive eater for life!