When I first had children, I am not going to lie but I found having my life completely utterly turned upside with no sense of routine quite hard to take and I found myself believing that if Jack had some sort of routine, my life would be easier. So, yes, I decided to read Gina Ford. In fact, I even made up spreadsheets with set times for sleep, eat and play and stuck them up all over the house! I was convinced that this would give me some sort of sense of “myself” back – well, how wrong was I?!!
I didn’t take long for me to realise that Jack didn’t “conform” to any sort of routine. And, trying to keep to Gina Ford’s ridiculous timescales was far more distressing than it was before I thought it was a good idea to brush off my excel skills and tabulate the life of a baby in lines and columns.
I very quickly realised that in terms of responding to Jacks needs at the times he needed to eat, sleep, play or just cuddle up was far more rewarding.
When we talk about responsive feeding when weaning, it is all about going back to basics and listening to our little ones. We need to understand that the only person who knows when they want to eat and when they are hungry are our clever babies themselves. At 6 months, they are not able to tell us vocally that they are hungry or that they have had enough to eat so we need to look out for their cues.
When we begin weaning, we need to understand that not all babies are ready to eat at 6 months and it is not uncommon for babies to not be interested in food at this age. We do need to keep offering food from 6 months (as long as our babies are showing the physical signs of being ready to eat which are all discussed in a Weaning in a Nutshell Workshop) but if they are not seemingly bothered about eating just yet, we can’t do anything about it. And so, when we start weaning, we need to be responsive. We need to respond to our babies and when they are ready to start eating, they will. Don’t forget, their milk, whether breast or formula, gives them all the nutrition they need at this stage to keep healthy, grow and develop.
So what about once they are eating on a regular basis, how does responsive eating come into play then? Well, this is something which we discuss a lot on our workshops. As parents, our instinct is to nurture our young and one of the ways of doing this is via food. Food is nourishment and we want to make sure we nourish our children. Food is one way we can fulfil maternal (and paternal) instincts of providing sustenance to ensure our babies are well looked after. But, we need to do this responsively.
We have to listen to our small people as they start on solids. We need to offer finger foods or purees on spoons but we need to look for those cues that they have had enough and their little tummies are full. For those doing baby-led weaning (blw), it is a lot easier to notice that your baby has had enough to eat. Francesca used the blw method when we introduced solids to her and when she was full; she would pick up the pieces left on her tray and put them on the floor. She would try and lob pieces to the other side of the room or she would try to feed them to Gromit, our dog! Once she started doing this, I knew it was time to get her out of her highchair as mealtime was over.
Jack was puree fed predominantly. And I have to admit that seeing his cue’s that he was full were a lot harder to spot as it is quite easy for a baby to just keep opening their mouth to accept another mouthful. However, I noticed that he started to clamp his teeth down around his spoon, start arching his back as if he was bored and doing a lot of whinging. So, I soon began to understand that he had eaten enough at that mealtime and he was ready to get down from his highchair.
We also need to remember that there are no recommendations around portion sizes at this age as our babies are all growing at different rates, their food intake needs are different, their body shapes are different and their appetites will vary considerably. That is why we have to let them take the lead when they are eating. Trying to get them to eat more because you feel like they should, isn’t responsive feeding. Encouraging them to have 1 more spoonful and doing the “choo choo train” into their mouth (aka a tunnel) isn’t responsive feeding. Trying to encourage them to finish their whole plate full of food because you don’t want waste isn’t responsive feeding. We have to give our little ones the benefit of the doubt that they know when they have had enough and that their tummies are full and content.
Dr Amy Brown who wrote the book “Why starting solids matters” defines responsive feeding as the following:-
“a reciprocal relationship between an infant or child and his or her caregiver that is characterised by the child communicating feelings of hunger and satiety through verbal or nonverbal cues, followed by an immediate response from the caregiver. The response includes the provision of appropriate and nutritious food in a supportive manner, while maintaining an appropriate feeding environment”
I think this definition is great! It says it all in a nutshell and it is more than just providing nutrient rich foods but it about how the relationship you have with your child (and vice versa), is based on trust. It is about meeting your little ones’ needs. It is about offering a variety of foods but also being realistic, they are not going to love everything on their plate all the time but offering a variety of tastes and textures will really encourage a healthy diet from 6 months and a positive relationship with food.
And be good models! When your baby or child sees you eating a healthy, varied and interesting diet, it becomes the norm and they will start to model your behaviour. Parents who eat lots of vegetables and fruit themselves, and eat a wide and varied diet, are more likely to have children who eat in a similar way (Cooke et al, 2004)
Responsive eating is about listening, watching and trusting your baby and becoming accustomed to those cues that they have eaten enough at that mealtime. This is about setting them up on the right path to the bigger picture which is fostering positive emotions around eating and exposing them to many healthy tastes and textures resulting in a healthy diet, body and mind.
Finally, I have to mention that weaning is from 6 months for many reasons and these are based on evidence, research, science and facts. Therefore, when I see people posting on social media that it is “fine to wean your baby at 3 months because you need to listen to your baby and they must be hungry for food as they keep waking in the night” – this is NOT the responsive feeding I am talking about! Responsive feeding needs to be done alongside the official health guidelines so that your baby has the best chance of a healthy and happy food relationship now and throughout their lives.
So, sit back and trust in your little person. You are helping them to recognise when they are hungry or full which is an innate human skill. It is this skill which sets them on the path to healthy eating and having a positive relationship with food and in my opinion, this is one of the best and most rewarding skills to have.
Brown, A. Why Starting Solids Matters. Pinter and Martin; 2017
Cooke, L.J., Wardle, J., Gibson, E.L., Sapochnik, M., Sheiham, A.,& Lawson, M. (2004). Demographic, familial and traits predictors of fruit and vegetable consumption by pre-school children. Public Health Nutrition, 7(02), 295-302