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Family Meals Focus

The Ellyn Satter Institute Newsletter

Feeding pressure on all sides

by Ellyn Satter, Registered Dietitian and Family Therapist

An estimated half of young children have feeding problems.1 It is little wonder. Research shows that almost all parents of young children are interfering with feeding. They bribe, pressure, and cater, prepare foods their children like, accommodate specific requests, and pacify children with sweets. They don’t believe their children when they say they are full and encourage them to eat more.2

Parents work way too hard

My observations during the making the Feeding with Love and Good Sense II DVD confirms the research. I had the privilege of going into 30 California homes and watching parents feed their children. From that footage, I produced an 80 minute video that shows what to do and not do with feeding. To put a positive spin on it, parents work way too hard! To put a not-so-positive spin on it, parents are interfering. They sit down to a lovely meal and spoil it right away by telling the child, “you know the rules – you have to eat your vegetables.” Often the “eat your vegetables” admonition reverberates, with one parent picking up the words of the other and the first amplifying the second and back again. Parents peer and arrange and wipe-wipe-wipe and scrape together the child’s food. They tap the child’s plate and interrupt her conversation to remind her to finish whatever-it-is. They insist on one bite of everything and reason and praise and feed children who are old enough to feed themselves and explain about nutritional superiority and make bargains about “first this and then that.” They keep up a rat-tat litany: Use your fork, use your spoon, use your napkin. For their part, children do not easily give up their rights with eating. They argue, whine, cry, resist. evade, become defiantly messy, throw anything within reach, and press their parents to make increasingly ridiculous food bargains.

Mealtime interference makes children eat poorly

Children get so much input that they lose touch with themselves: their internal cues of hunger and satiety, their enjoyment and curiosity about food, and their pride in learning to do well with eating.

As a result of all this static, children get so much input that they lose touch with themselves: their internal cues of hunger and satiety, their enjoyment and curiosity about food, and their pride in learning to do well with eating. But parents are stressed as well. They do not enjoy making their child miserable, but they do it anyway because they think it is good parenting with food. Why all the fuss? If children get the support they need – enjoyable family meals – they push themselves along to learn to eat the food their parents eat. Eventually they even do it neatly. Where do parents get the idea that they have to micromanage children’s eating? This pattern is not confined to San Jose, CA, nor is it new. Thirty years ago, an experienced Pediatric Nurse Practitioner observed to me, “If a child eats, parents think it is all their idea.”

Cautious, slow-to-warm-up children do way worse with pressure

Given this pressure on their eating, little wonder that children who are at all cautious and limited with respect to eating develop extreme food selectivity or bizarre food behaviors. If fed according to a division of responsibility in feeding and allowed to move along according to their own tempo, even slow-to-warm-up children learn to enjoy a variety of food. Really cautious kids, such as those with sensory integration disorders and autism spectrum disorders, still push themselves ever-so-slowly along to learn to eat. To do that they need structure, opportunities to learn about all kinds of food and no pressure. Children with neuromuscular limitations struggle to manage the nipple or the spoon and eat until they run out of energy and it stops being enjoyable. Then they need nutritional support delivered in some other way so they and they and their parents don’t have to wear themselves out satisfying their nutritional requirements.

We must teach parents about joyful eating and feeding

The take-home message is that we have work to do. We must let these poor parents – and these poor children – off the hook by teaching parents the division of responsibility in feeding. In order to feed well, parents need to eat well – they need to be eating competent. Along with that, we must help parents identify when they are putting pressure on feeding, and give them the good news about how much happier they and they child will be if they stop it.

References

  1. Sherry B, McDivitt J, Birch L, et al. Attitudes, practices, and concerns about child feeding and child weight status among socioeconomically diverse white, Hispanic, and African-American mothers. J Am Diet Assoc. 2004;104:215-221.
  2. Linscheid TR, Budd KS, Rasnake LK. Pediatric feeding problems. In: Roberts MC, ed. Handbook of Pediatric Psychology (3rd ed). New York, New York: Guilford; 2003:481-498.

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