Responsive feeding

Date Published: 14/10/2021

There have been many changes in the recommendations around feeding babies solid food. As new evidence unfolds, we understand more about the timing and types of foods young children need to grow and thrive. It’s not only the how and why of food which is important, but the way parents engage with their child when they’re eating.

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When parents are sensitive to their child’s communication and pick up on the meaning of their child’s behaviour, this is being responsive.

Responsive feeding builds on other research into parenting, sleep and settling and healthy relationships between children and their parents. Even before you introduce your baby to solid foods you can start responsive feeding strategies, that way you’ll have plenty of practice. 

What is responsive feeding?

Responsive feeding means being sensitive to the signals your child gives at mealtimes. Picking up on their hunger and fullness cues will mean they’re more likely to eat when they are hungry and stop when they are satisfied. Responsive feeding relies on two-way communication between baby and parent.

Babies who are responsively fed are less likely to develop unhealthy eating habits and be less fussy when they eat. This is because they self-regulate (control) what they’re eating – they eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full. Responsive feeding acknowledges the baby’s own ability to know what and how much they want to eat, without their parent controlling their mealtimes.

Is responsive feeding the same as baby led weaning?

The two are similar but not exactly the same. Responsive feeding includes baby led weaning but is a little more about the relationship rather than the strategies. Baby led weaning, also known as BLW, is where the baby is offered age-appropriate foods and textures and they feed themselves.

Responsive feeding relies on a type of communication where the parent follows the baby’s cues about what and how much they want to eat. With BLW, the baby eats finger foods from when they’re first offered solid foods.

Hunger cues

Every baby will have their own unique and individual behaviour when they are hungry. These signals can serve as a prompt to parents and caregivers that it’s time food was offered.

However, babies have some classic, universal hunger signs:

  • Becoming fussy, restless, crying and looking for food, especially if it’s been a while since they’ve eaten.
  • Reaching for and pointing at food in the fridge or the pantry. They may want to climb into their highchair.
  • Getting excited when they see food being prepared. They begin to focus so much on the food that it’s difficult to distract them.

When food is offered:

  1. They grab and start reaching for the spoon.
  2. They lean forward towards the spoon or fork, open their mouth then chew and swallow the food.
  3. They stay excited by the sight and smell of food.
  4. Try to feed themselves.
  5. They may wave their arms around and kick their feet.

Signs of fullness

Just as babies can give very clear signals when they are hungry, most will show signs when they are satisfied. Like the adults who care for them, babies don’t eat the same amount of food at every mealtime. When they’re going through a growth phase, they need more food to supply the energy they need to grow.

  1. Start fussing, closing their mouth and pushing the spoon or fork away from their mouth.
  2. Resist sitting in the highchair and want to get out.
  3. Start playing with the food or throwing it off tray of the highchair.
  4. Turn away from offered food.
  5. Just look full and satisfied.

How would I know if I’m doing responsive feeding the right way?

There is no ‘one right way’ when it comes to responsive feeding management. It’s really as much about what you don’t do as much as what you do. For example, it’s important not to ‘override’ or ignore the signals your baby gives when they’re hungry or full. Ignoring their cues will not be responsive.

There will be times when it’s easier to interpret your baby’s hunger/fullness cues. What’s important is that you’re trying and you have good intentions.

There will also be times when your baby doesn’t really know what they want themselves. For example, they may be tired and hungry at the same time, they could be bored and hungry or perhaps just not interested in eating. When you’re tired and just wanting to get the mealtime over with, you’ll be less sensitive to your baby’s signals.

What not to do with responsive feeding

Try to control precisely what your baby eats and how much of it. Remember, the goal is to allow them the freedom to make their own feeding choices. Try not to worry if your baby doesn’t seem to eat much in any one meal. Think about what they’re eaten in the previous day or so. It’s the total volume of food over a couple of days which is important.

Don’t override your baby’s cues with your own anxiety about their mealtimes. Think about the meaning behind their behaviour and see your baby as a separate individual to yourself. We all have our own unique relationship with food and eating and it can be hard not to let this influence our approach to feeding our children. However, it’s important to allow our children the space to make their own choices. Healthy, well, thriving babies who are on track with their development are able to recognize when they are hungry and when they are full.

For more information about responsive feeding

Speak with your child health nurse or family support worker.

Written by Jane Barry, Midwife and Child Health Nurse. September 2021.