- For his dinner, 5-year-old Michael ate 1/4 boiled egg, 2 bites of bread and 1 apple slice. After that, he said he was full. When his mom said he would get no dessert if he did not finish his dinner, Michael took 2 more bites of the egg and ate one piece of broccoli. Mom was upset he did not eat everything but was happy he took a few more bites. To reward him for eating dinner, she gave him a cookie for dessert.
- Two-year-old Jamie ate all his lunch yesterday but today he just took a few bites. The mom was worried he would not get enough calories and play “here comes the airplane” to make him eat a little more. Jamie finished everything to please his mom and to be able to run to play.
- Seven-year-old Colleen ate all her lunch and then asked for a second helping. Her parents refused to give her more food because their pediatrician told them that Colleen was overweight and they needed to ‘watch her portions’.
What do these stories have in common?
It is obvious that all of the parents featured in them are very worried about their child’s health and well-being. It is also probable that they have voiced their concerns to their health care providers at some point. Very often such parents do not receive the support they need to learn about typical eating behaviors in children or the importance of self-regulating the caloric intake.
At some point, often out of the legitimate concern and sometimes out of pure fear, they started controlling how much their children ate at every meal. It probably allowed them to at least feel ‘proactive’ in sorting out whatever eating issue worried them. But the unfortunate and often unforeseen consequence of mealtime pressure, apart from the obvious stress and worsened eating, is that children who are told what and how much to eat may gradually lose the ability to self-regulate the amount of food they need on any given day.
Here are a few reasons why trusting children’s appetites is important:
Changes in growth rate.
Children grow very fast during the first year of life. In fact, they double their birth weight before they are 12 months old. After that, their growth slows down and so does the appetite. In addition, by the age of 2 children want to assert their independence when it comes to eating. They are more likely to reject previously liked foods or develop a fear of new foods.
Sometimes the change in appetite and behavior is so dramatic it makes the parents wonder if their child is ok. Feeding struggles often when the child is entering this typical fussy eating phase.
Research shows that a vast majority of typically developing children have an innate ability to self-regulate how much they need to eat, even if it looks to us like they eat too much or too little. Unfortunately, the connection with this amazing regulation system starts weakening by 2-3 years of age. At this point, outside factors such as portion sizes may affect how much children choose to eat.
In addition to the naturally diminishing ability to self-regulate, some children are forced to eat more or less than they need by their parents. In response to this, they may eventually stop listening to their bodies and lose the innate ability to eat in response to their energy needs.
Keeping food and emotions apart.
Some studies show that little girls often try to please their parents by finishing their meal or some parts of it. This may create a strong link between food and emotions and trigger eating in absence of hunger. Do you often turn to food for comfort or finish everything on your plate even when not hungry anymore? It may have started in childhood when you were praised for eating your meal up or rewarded with a cookie if you ate your carrots. Read Are you feeding your emotions?
No broccoli, please.
Finally, forcing children to eat certain foods, such as vegetables, may lead to a life-long aversion to them. You probably know someone who cannot bear the sight of boiled cabbage or overcooked cauliflower that they were pressured to eat as kids.
What can you do to help children self-regulate?
- Teach them about it without even talking. During meals, allow your children to stop eating when they are full even when you think they haven’t eaten enough or to ask for more food if they are still hungry. This way you will give them a chance for a healthy weight and a healthy relationship with food for life. No need to discuss what their “tummies feel like”, most small children will not even understand the concept.
- Implement structure in meals and snacks. The structure is the backbone of healthy eating habits. Having reliable meals and snacks gives children an opportunity to eat again soon if they did not like the previous meal. Schedule meals and snacks every 2-3 hours and rest assured that the children will not go hungry for a long time. It may take a few days for children to learn that you will not provide snacks on demand anymore. But once they understand that, they will learn to focus on eating during the meals and scheduled snacks instead of grazing.
- Follow the Division of Responsibility in feeding. You, as a parent, decide what, when and where to feed your child. Your child decides how much to eat of what is offered. Whenever possible, allow children to serve themselves or ask them what and how much they want before putting food on their plate. When the pressure is gone, the eating behavior may go worse for a few days. Children who were forced to eat vegetables may stay away from them for a few weeks while those who were not allowed to eat as much as they wanted may eat bigger portions of food. But, as children realize that they will not be pressured or restricted again, their eating habits improve.
- Relax at mealtimes. A stressful mealtime environment, where children feel judged or pressured to eat (even in a subtle way), may become a big turn-off factor for the little appetites. At the same time, when children are restricted in how much they eat during mealtimes, they may become preoccupied with food and sneak it when parents are not watching. To help them stay attuned to their bodies and eat the right amount of food for them, remove distractions like the TV and shift the focus to the quality of family time during meals, instead of counting bites and spoonfuls
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