This post is part of the 2010 API Principles of Parenting blog carnival, a series of monthly parenting blog carnivals, hosted by API Speaks. Learn more about attachment parenting by visiting the API website.
When Mikko was a baby, I was observing a Facebook comment thread of a friend of ours who had elementary-school-age children. She was bemoaning her middle child's lack of interest in eating at mealtimes. The girl was about five years old, and I had opinions on the mother's concerns but didn't feel comfortable voicing them, considering my child wasn't even eating solids yet.
But now that Mikko is two and three-quarters years old (I'm sure that three-quarters part is significant), I have no problem voicing my opinion on the matter. Mikko has been (kind of) eating (some) solids (when he wants to) for over two years now, so I feel pretty confident putting this message out there.
Let your children decide how much they want to eat.
That's my advice. As a caveat right off, it might not be applicable in certain instances. I can think of several medical conditions off the top of my head where following my advice might be dangerous, and I can think of situations where older children, not raised with such freedom, might abuse it.
So, if your child has a medical condition, don't listen to blogs more than you listen to your healthcare providers. But that second exception is why I think feeding with love and respect needs to start early with kids — and then continue steadily throughout their childhoods.
Here's are some of the guidelines from the Attachment Parenting site about AP Principle #2: Feeding with love and respect:
- Encourage a child to follow his bodily cues for hunger and thirst, to eat when he is hungry and stop when he is full.
- Forcing a child to eat, or to eat a certain food, is counterproductive and can lead to unhealthy eating habits and potentially eating disorders
- Avoid the use of food as a reward or punishment, or of making food (or dessert) contingent on behavior
- Rather than restricting access to certain foods, consider having only healthy options available in the home and allowing the child to choose
This is not to say that bottle-feeding parents cannot help their children develop the same cues, just that breastfeeding on cue makes it happen automatically. It also, at least in my case, helps the parents lessen their control over when, for how long, and how much their child eats, because breastfeeding is entirely up to the child. When solids are introduced, these same gentle principles can be extended to keep solid-food eating just as healthy and respectful as breastfeeding.
So, back to the mother I was dying to counsel. Here was the situation. Her five-year-old was a skinny thing — not unhealthy, just naturally waif-like, and dissimilar to the rest of the family, who were otherwise stout. I think the mother had gotten used to her other family members' eating habits and was unwilling to accept that her middle daughter might have different caloric needs.
The mother wanted her daughter to eat at certain prescribed times, and to eat a certain amount and variety of food. She tried to limit her daughter's snacking and juice drinking beforehand; she tried to cajole her into eating the foods she'd prepared for the meal; she set restrictions on which foods must be eaten followed by reward foods (dessert) if the rules were followed; she was considering punishment if the proper foods were not eaten.
I wanted to tell her: Loosen up. Your child's thin, and that's ok. She's not unhealthy, just different from you. She has a small stomach and a small appetite, and there's no need to force her to eat when she's not hungry.
What I feared most was the probable effects all this mealtime wrangling would have on the girl: She would either learn to overeat, which was not otherwise her natural inclination, or she would react ever more negatively against her mother's coercion and develop deep-rooted aversions to mealtime and to certain foods.
I wanted to shout at the mother, in the Facebook thread: Your daughter is physically and emotionally healthy; she is not going to die from ingesting too few calories! She will eat if she is hungry!
For what it's worth, I'd eaten dinner at their house. The food they served was healthy and delicious. I think if they let their daughter choose her fare, she would make it just fine.
I did not tell the mother this, but I will tell you. If you have a young baby, give the best start by breastfeeding on cue or practicing "bottle nursing." As your child begins solids, consider a baby-led approach to solids rather than following outmoded guidelines of so much mushy purees at such and such an age. Particularly if your child is breastfeeding, it's perfectly fine if the majority (or, seriously, all) of the calories come from breastmilk for the entire first year.
Likewise, if your baby wants to continue breastfeeding past six months, past a year, past two years — why not! Breastmilk is still a beneficial food well into toddlerhood and even the preschool years. Again, follow your child's cues and your own (positive) intuitions and don't let cultural norms sway you from doing what you and your child desire. The Clean Plate Club we can do away with, and the idea that only young infants need breastfeeding can also go away, thank you.
Our experienceI want to give you some real-life experience with "aberrant" solids eating behavior and weight gain, so you can see I'm not someone whose child learned to eat along some idealized curve and now thinks no one else should be worried because they must also have perfectly normal children.
But, no, no — we have a freak. And I say that in the lovingest way possible.
Mind if I take you through a photo journey of baby food and baby fat? If you don't feel like seeing a bajillion hilarious pictures of my pudgy child, feel free to skip to the end.
Here's a little trip through his solid food adventures:
Seriously, Mikko still has days when all he eats is breastmilk. And you know what? I trust that that's what he needs on those days. Often it's because he's not feeling well and his body knows it needs the extra antibodies. Other days he wolfs down everything solid in sight, and asks for more, and that's fine, too.
We've been babysitting some other kids recently, and I've been amazed at how much they put away. They're skinnier and younger than Mikko, and they eat three times as much as he does, solids-wise. I don't believe they're still being breastfed, though I'm not sure. It doesn't worry me, though. I know some people would still consider Mikko to be fat, but he's just right for himself. Others might worry that he hasn't put on any weight in the past two years, but I'm not concerned. He piled it on fast and furious right at the start, as breastfed babies are wont to do, and it's completely natural for growth to slow way down in the second year and beyond. I mean, if he'd kept at the pace he'd started, he wouldn't fit in the house anymore!
So there you are. If my kid were on the lighter side, I'd be telling you the same thing. Again, barring medical condition, children — like adults (duh!) — are a range of sizes. Someone has to be on the lower end, and someone has to fill those upper percentiles. It's fine if you or your kid are in one or the other of those camps.
Feed your child the way you'd want to be fed: with autonomy, with empathy, with healthful choices, and, most of all, with trust. The rest will work out just fine.
Here are some links you might find helpful:
- Is my exclusively breastfed baby gaining too much weight? from KellyMom
- Why delay solids? from KellyMom
- Myths about solids readiness from KellyMom
- Guidelines for implementing a baby-led approach to the introduction of solid food, by Gill Rapley
- Baby Led Weaning album, blog, and forum (A note to US English readers: "weaning" in this usage means introducing solids)
- How much should my toddler be eating? from KellyMom
- Average toddler growth from KellyMom
How has feeding your baby, toddler, or child gone for you? Are there any eating issues are you trying to avoid passing on to your children?