Why "Responsive Feeding" Is So Good For Your Baby

Feeding experts say responsive feeding can set your child up for healthy habits for years to come. Here's what you need to know about the method and how to follow your baby's hunger cues.

young mom feeding baby in high chair
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Using the responsive feeding style during your child's first two years of life can help her have a better relationship with food and eating and even stay at a healthier weight. But, what exactly is responsive feeding?

In a nutshell, responsive feeding is recognizing and responding to the signs your baby gives you about whether she's hungry or full. Seems simple enough, but plenty of parents encourage a couple more bites to finish the portion or because what baby ate just didn't seem like enough. Sound familiar? (Does to me!)

Every child is different, but some of the classic signs of hunger are when your baby:

  • Puts her hands in her mouth
  • Makes sucking noises
  • Opens her mouth
  • Flexes her arms and legs

Some cues of fullness are when she:

  • Spits out the bottle or pulls away from the breast
  • Turns her head away
  • Closes her mouth
  • Seems distracted or fidgety (or falls asleep)

Every time you feed your baby when she's giving hunger cues, it makes her feel secure—she knows she'll be nourished when she needs it. Likewise, letting her stop when she's full allows her to stay in tune with her body. Babies are born with the ability to self-regulate when it comes to food. Pressuring them to continue eating past the point of fullness could set up a habit of ignoring that cue, which can create problems later with overeating.

"One of the most important advantages of responsive feeding is in the development of trust between the child and parent," says Parents adviser Jill Castle, RD, co-author of Fearless Feeding. "This trust goes both ways. The child trusts the parent to provide food when she is hungry and to stop feeding her when she indicates she's full. The parent trusts the child to understand her body and its signals of hunger and fullness."

Other important hallmarks of responsive feeding: Having predictable schedules for feeding, serving healthy and tasty food, and just as important, creating a pleasant, nurturing eating environment. That means facing your child during mealtime and having lots of eye contact.

On the flipside is non-responsive feeding, which can take a few forms. Parents may pressure baby to eat, which can occur when a baby is born at a lower weight. Parents can also restrict food if they're worried their child's weight is too high. Parents may also largely ignore baby during feeding. None of these are linked with healthy outcomes. In fact, pressuring your child to eat can result in less weight gain and restriction is actually associated with a higher BMI and risk for overweight, according to research.

Keep in mind that honoring hunger and fullness cues isn't something you stop doing once your baby starts walking and talking. Trusting your child with food is important throughout childhood—which means not bribing or coaxing to eat more, requiring a certain number of bites, or making a kid clean his plate.

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.

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