Studies have shown that parents and children all do better if we understand our roles and responsibilities when it comes to feeding and mealtime, and there are many benefits of defining roles and responsibilities in the “Feeding Relationship” between parents and their children. The purpose of defining roles is to promote a positive interaction between parents and children during mealtimes and when making food choices. The first communication with babies centers on feeding. When you hold an infant and feed from a bottle or breast, there is a natural interaction that occurs. You look in your baby’s eyes and pay attention to his gestures and movements to know when he is tired or full.
This interaction continues as your baby grows. When he sits in his infant seat or high chair, it is your responsibility to provide foods that are healthy, tasty and safe to eat. At this stage, a positive feeding relationship means that you are both being attentive to each other. For example, it takes time for toddlers with Down syndrome to move the food around, swallow, and then prepare for the next bite. Watch your child and wait for him to be ready. It is important to give babies the time they need. If your baby turns his face away, don’t chase him with the spoon. Allow him to say, “No, I don’t want that,” or “I am full!” Listening to your child in these early stages of feeding teaches him that you are listening to him and respect his decisions.
This positive feeding relationship helps as children get older, too. If your child knows he has the right to choose how much and whether or not he eats something, he begins to understand how to listen to his body cues. This doesn’t prevent challenges that may arise, such as emotional eating or a propensity for junk food, but it helps. Most importantly, respecting your child’s role in the feeding relationship teaches him that he can say “no thank you” when someone offers food. Too often, we praise the “good eater,” sending the message that eating everything whenever it is offered is what we expect.
Understanding your role in the feeding relationship also helps keep you from becoming a short-order cook. No one likes to prepare more than one menu for each meal, but for mealtime to be successful, it’s important to make something for everyone. If you know there is nothing on the table that your child will eat, you aren’t holding up your end of the bargain. But if you ensure that there is something available to your child, then he will choose to eat that and get at least some calories. Later, he can make snack choices to round out the meal.
I think we often lose sight of the joy of food and activity. We hear so much about weight loss and the need to be active that these things have become a chore. When it comes to helping our children develop healthy habits, it’s important to relax, listen, experiment, and have fun. That said, the following are some specific strategies you might want to try:
- Explore new foods together. Go to the store and find something totally new in the produce section, or try a new shape of pasta.
- Once a month, choose a new recipe with your child that you prepare together. Plan for a mess, and enjoy the time you spend together learning new things and developing new skills.
- Always build in choices. When your child is young, for example, the development of “healthy habits” centers on learning to communicate and choose. So be sure to provide visual representations of food, such as photos and wrappers, or teach sign language for various foods.
- Involve your child in menu planning at an early age. Even if you don’t plan more than 30 minutes in advance, be sure to give your child the opportunity to choose one item on the menu or between different snack options.
Anyone can participate in these activities, though it can take some creative thinking.