Did you know that from birth, babies are born knowing exactly when and how much they need to eat based on internal hunger and fullness signals? It’s honestly pretty amazing how they’re born with this innate skill! And these inner cues don’t disappear as they get older. They actually act as a regulatory mechanism that helps make sure your child develops properly. When they’re body gives them signals saying “Hey, you’re full, you can stop eating now” or “I don’t think I’m satisfied yet, let’s have a bit more”, it’s making sure they eat enough, but not too much either. So, how do we as parents know how to read these body signals? Ya know, since they don’t even talk yet…
Well, babies are pretty amazing creatures, and although they can’t communicate verbally, they have other ways to communicate with us. We just need to know what to look for and how to interpret it! When it comes to anything involving feeding, most parents feel as though they could do a better job at feeding their baby if they work towards a set goal of “X” amount of oz per feeding. And may even jump for joy when they guzzle down a whole bottle, or eat a whole bowl of food like a champ. But is this really what matters? Reaching a certain goal just because it makes us feel like better parents? I’m here to tell you that setting specific quantitative goals for food just isn’t realistic for your baby. Their bodies are rapidly changing…going through periods when they grow, and other periods where they don’t. There is no possible way we can be sure that we know how much our baby’s, or toddler’s, body actually needs at any point in time, as much as we’d like to think we can. That’s why it’s time to set aside any expectations, and let your baby work their magic on deciding how much they choose to eat, by letting them be intuitive eaters and trust their inner cues.
Once you set all your expectations aside, and start truly listening to what your baby is telling you they need, feeding can become a lot less stressful for you, and them. We do this through a feeding approach called responsive feeding.
What is responsive feeding?
Responsive feeding is the process of feeding in response to your baby’s natural cues of hunger or fullness. The idea of this is to let them take the lead. They express hunger, or fullness, either verbally or non verbally, and you react immediately by offering more food, or by ending mealtime. It takes the focus off a specific amount of food eaten at each meal, a specific amount of feedings per day, or a specific length of time for a meal, and focuses more on what they say they need instead. When it comes to following natural cues of hunger, babies and toddlers are the best at regulating this themselves because they don’t rely on a clock to tell them when they should eat based on social norms, like most adults do (I guess they could teach us a thing or two huh?!). The beauty of responsive feeding is that it accounts for their variability in appetite. Some days they may eat tons, and others, barely want anything! This is totally okay, and normal.
In fact, listening in and following their lead is actually what helps prevent under and over nutrition. It teaches them the premise of mindful eating, in which they need to be tuned into their body, during a distraction free mealtime, to “listen”, so to speak, to their cues and eat when they need to instead of when they’re told they should. The benefit of this is that it can then help prevent them from forming any unhealthy eating habits as they grow. Like eating for emotional reasons, or out of boredom. It also works wonders for making mealtimes more manageable as they continue into toddlerhood, because they don’t feel pressured to eat, so it can help prevent any stress or tension at mealtimes.
How do feeding cues change during different feeding stages?
Responsive feeding can look vastly different when you’re breastfeeding vs bottle feeding, for example, or doing baby led weaning vs purees. Oh, and then there comes toddlerhood. Even though it may look different in each stage, the main focus is still listening to their cues and responding to this accordingly!
Breastfeeding and formula feeding
If you’ve followed me for some time, you’ll know that I’ve discussed at length the importance of following the division of responsibility for toddlers. Well, there’s also a division of responsibility theory laid out for babies. Here it is:
The parent is responsible for:
- Choosing breast or formula feeding
- Helping your baby be calm and organized
- Paying attention to her sleeping, waking, and feeding cues
- Feeding smoothly, paying attention to baby’s cues about timing, tempo, frequency, and amounts
The baby is responsible for:
- How much, how fast, and how frequently they eat
So as you can see, we provide the food, environment, and attention…and baby does the rest! There is no coaxing to eat, or shoving a nipple into their mouth if they turn their head away. It’s not the parent’s job to cut them off in the middle of a feed if they think they’ve eaten too much. In responsive feeding, we only focus on the things we can control, and we really hand over the rest of the responsibility to our baby. They know better!
Following responsive feeding may be a bit more intuitive when breastfeeding because you don’t really have as much control over how much they eat per feed. You can responsively feed while nursing by offering breast milk on demand, which allows them to control when they want to eat based on if they’re hungry or not. Sometimes it can feel like they nurse non-stop, but remember that during this age they grow so fast, and by being responsive to when they need to eat, you may be helping them through a growth spurt or a period where they’re extra hungry. Sometimes, they simply just want to feed because they need nurturing, and by warmly responding to their needs at that time, it can help you and your baby bond by showing them they are loved and respected.
When formula feeding, you can also honour responsive feeding by listening to baby’s cues for when they’re hungry, and stopping when they’re showing signs that they’re full – regardless of if they’ve finished all the formula in the bottle. It can be tough, but try not to encourage them to finish the rest if there is any left over because you may end up overriding the regulation they have. Just like breastfed babies, they will typically feed on demand when they’re young based on their growth spurts and if they’re going through teething, etc.
Hunger cues for breastfeeding or formula feeding:
- Rooting – turning head into objects that are close to their face and opening their mouth like they’re looking for a breast or bottle
- Chewing on hands or putting things into their mouth
- Making sucking motions or sounds
- Clenching hands over chest or tummy
- Flexing legs and arms
- Crying or seeming unsettled – this is usually a later sign of hunger and likely they’ll show the other signs first – some babies have a particular cry just for hunger
Fullness cues for breastfeeding or formula feeding:
- Unlatching and re-latching from the breast often (note: this could also be a sign of discomfort when feeding)
- Getting distracted easily by things in the environment or fidgeting constantly
- Pushing bottle or breast away from face and closing mouth
- Spitting breast milk/formula out
- Slowing down the pace of feeding
Spoon feeding and baby led weaning
It can be easier to forget to be responsive while starting solids with spoon feeding since it feels like you have more control during mealtimes. BUT it’s still doable, and something I’m passionate about teaching you how to do, in detail, inside my Baby Led Feeding online course! Just pay attention to your baby and follow their lead. For example, you can let them help you guide the spoon into their mouth with their hands, or watch for signs of them wanting a bite, like opening their mouth. Once they start to slow down, honour this by not encouraging them to take more off the spoon, or playing games like “here comes the airplane!”, because this only encourages mindless eating, and you may risk over-feeding them.
Your baby may also be telling you they want to feed themselves, and that’s okay! Many of my Baby Led Feeding course graduates have learned that transitioning to finger foods, and allowing their babies to self-feed, can happen much earlier than they expected when they follow their baby’s cues. And, it tends to make responsive feeding easier, since their baby basically has all the control! By allowing babies to serve themselves from what you’ve offered, they can completely regulate how much they want to eat, and the pace of the meal, all while developing more independence and fine-tuning their motor and oral skills!
Hunger cues once baby starts solids:
- Opening mouth and leaning towards food as if they’re accepting or looking for food
- Following food with their eyes
- Getting excited when they see food
- Reaching out to grab for food
- Eating at a consistent pace
Fullness cues once baby starts solids:
- Pushes food/spoon away
- Closes mouth when you offer food
- Spits food out
- Gets distracted easily – typically if a baby is hungry they eat quickly at the beginning of the meal
- Tries to leave highchair or table
- Throwing food may also be an indication they’re done
- Slowing down the pace of eating
Seeing just one of these cues alone may not be all you need to for sure know they are hungry or full, but try to see whether they’re present in combination with other signs, and once you see it happening once or twice, you can be confident in the message they’re sending. It will get easier over time and with some practice. Once you’re aware of what your baby specifically does, you will be quick to recognize the signs when you see them!
Ahh, toddlers. In rolls the ability to talk, or at least, be somewhat verbal. Oh, and the constant asking for snacks. This age can be easy in a sense, but also hard to make sure responsive feeding is happening. Since this is the age when most children start to get distracted easily, because they’re so busy and want to be on the move 24/7, plus picky eating usually begins, it can be hard to feel confident they’re getting enough food to help them grow. Having trust that your toddler knows their body best really becomes of utmost importance here!!
Of course, they will be more verbal at this age, and so, they can say things like “I’m full” pretty easily. But they don’t always use that word (or not in the right context), so here are some other cues to look for that show that they’re hungry/full:
Hunger cues for toddlers:
- Sounds, words, and hand gestures to get your attention and say “I’m hungry!”
- Reaching for food, wanting to feed themselves
- Expressing desire for food with words or gestures
- Possibly resorting to crying, fussiness, or a tantrum, especially if they are hangry
Fullness cues for toddlers:
- Turning away or shaking their head to say “no more” or “all done”
- Playing with, or throwing, food
- Covering their mouth or face with their hands, crossing arms, or other “negative” positions with body language
- Chewing slows down, and distractedness at the table increases
- Wanting to get down from the table/go play, etc.
- Spitting out foods they usually like
It’s SO important to note that toddlers often are confused with the definition of “I’m hungry” or “I’m full”. They also are testing boundaries often, will want food based solely on the fact that it’s “fun” or appealing (usually…it’s the crinkly snacks and processed foods that fall under this category), and will want to eat out of boredom, or have learned to eat to emotionally console or reward themselves. And so, it’s very possible that they’ll throw tantrums, cry, whine, open cupboards, ask or say “I’m hungry” when they want food for reasons other than true hunger.
That’s why I recommend setting a routine feeding schedule (please read this blog post if you haven’t already!). You can do your part to honour responsive feeding by staying within your role of feeding, and deciding what to serve, where to serve it, and when to serve it. And then allow them the freedom and control to choose if they want to eat, and how much, at each and every feeding opportunity. This is one of the best ways to teach mindful eating to toddlers and older kids for sure, and shows them that you’re confident in setting and keeping boundaries. They’ll test less and less and will come to accept, and even love, that they can be confident in your ability to parent them around food. You’ll build trust in one another this way… and, THIS is what will help you know that your toddler is eating just enough for what he/she needs, and the stress around feeding will disappear. Your toddler will trust that “Mom/Dad will always have food for me at set times throughout the day, I won’t get catered to, but I will always have something I like to eat, and they won’t pressure me to eat/not eat”… and you can trust that “As long as I give a variety of food options at scheduled times throughout the day, my toddler has the perfect feeding environment to eat what they need, eat at their own pace, and grow healthily.”
There are so many nuances, exceptions, and further explanations to the hunger and fullness cues in toddlers that result in SO many scenarios! I discuss, and help you tackle, these inside of my Feeding Toddlers online course. If you’re wondering, or struggling, with any issues regarding feeding at this stage, be sure to check it out!
Tips on setting yourself up for success
To be the most successful with responsive feeding, there are a few things you can do to help nail down and build the best relationship with your baby to make this a walk in the park!
First, start to be more aware of how your baby may be communicating with you. For example, they may not say anything yet, but pay attention to their body language, or non-verbal cues, like pulling things towards their mouth when they’re hungry, or pushing things away when they’re full. You can make sure you’re doing you’re best at this by being fully committed to giving them attention during mealtimes. This will get better and easier over time. You’ll notice patterns and can feel more confident in trusting your baby’s signs after you’ve given it some practice.
Second…limiting distraction at mealtimes! No phones, TV’s, iPad’s, or anything that can take your attention from your baby. Giving them all your attention means you have more time to bond with them, and learn how they communicate with you. Also, any distractions for them can take their attention away from recognizing if they’re hungry or full, and may cause them to mindlessly eat, or be so distracted they don’t eat enough!
Third…stick to the division of responsibility in feeding. Remind yourself of it often and work on building that trusting relationship. Feel confident in knowing that following through on your role, and focusing only on that, will let your baby/toddler trust you more. And, letting them completely focus and own their role in feeding will allow you to trust them more over time. This is the perfect feeding relationship, and will be the best way to ensure the healthiest baby/toddler, AND no stress around feeding.
If you need any guidance on how to incorporate responsive feeding during your mealtimes, my Baby Led Feeding online course and Feeding Toddlers online course can help steer you in the right direction. Both courses are based on responsive feeding methods, and the division of responsibility. And, they go deeper to give you the practical, day-to-day mom tips, and strategies, to make feeding fun, healthy, and totally stress-free!