What is Responsive Feeding?

What is Responsive Feeding for Infants and Children?

Did you know we are born with the ability to self-regulate our hunger and fullness cues, which tell us how often and how much to eat? Unfortunately, as we age external cues – think “clean your plate” rules, media influences, social pressures and misguided comments from our loved ones, can cloud our ability to listen and respond to those natural, internal cues. This reliance on external cues can begin very early in life and lead to an inability to self-regulate our food intake as children and adults.

However, one way that parents and caregivers can nurture and support their child’s relationship with food from an early age is through responsive feeding. Responsive feeding is a term used to describe a feeding style that emphasizes recognizing and responding to hunger and fullness cues of an infant or young child. Since infants and young children are not able to feed themselves, responsive feeding requires a parent or caregiver to be aware of their infant or child’s signs of hunger and fullness and respond promptly and with emotional support.

Long story short, you provide, the baby decides.

Why is Responsive Feeding Important?

Responsive feeding is important because infants and children should be encouraged to self-regulate their own food intake. The ability to self -regulate has been associated with less fussiness during mealtimes and the prevention of using food to soothe.

Parents are sometimes hesitant to practice responsive feeding because they are concerned about how this may influence their child’s future weight status. They may also be concerned that their infant or young child may be over or undereating, or unsure of what their infant is trying to convey through different facial expressions, head movements or body cues.

Nevertheless, when parents or caregivers do not practice responsive feeding, they risk overriding their baby’s internal hunger and fullness cues, which can lead to the child developing a less healthy relationship with food, eating in the absence of hunger and an inability to regulate emotions and food choices.

How to Practice Responsive Feeding

Because responsive feeding involves a parent or caregiver responding to their baby’s external hunger and fullness cues, it is important to be aware of their signs, both during breastfeeding or formula feeding and when eating solid foods. Below are examples for each.

Signs of Hunger During Breastfeeding or Formula Feeding

An infant may be hungry if he or she:

  • Puts hands to mouth
  • Gets excited when food is present
  • Turns head toward breast or bottle
  • Puckers, smacks or licks lips
  • Has clenched hands

Signs of Hunger when Eating Solid Foods

A child may be hungry if he or she:

  • Leans toward food and opens mouth
  • Gets excited at the sight of food
  • Focuses and follows food with eyes

Parents and caregivers should respond warmly to these signs and provide feeding options as promptly as possible.

Signs of Fullness During Breastfeeding or Formula Feeding

An infant may be full if he or she:

  • Starts and stops feeding often
  • Unlatches often while breastfeeding
  • Closes mouth and turns head away when offered breast or bottle
  • Spits out or pushes food away
  • Fidgets or gets distracted easily
  • Relaxes hands

Signs of Fullness when Eating Solid Foods

A child may be full if he or she:

  • Spits out or pushes food away
  • Fidgets or is easily distracted at mealtimes
  • Closes mouth when food is offered
  • Turns away from food
  • Plays with food

If an infant is showing these signs, parents should stop feeding, even if the infant has eaten less than usual or less than the parent or caregiver would like them to eat.

When parents and caregivers provide a warm and consistent awareness of their infant’s needs via responsive feeding, infants learn that their caregiver is reliable and trustworthy, which fosters their own ability to self-regulate food intake.

If a parent or caregiver is worried that their child isn’t eating enough or isn’t growing well, they should call their doctor and schedule an examination to see if there are any problems that need to be addressed.