The Baby

When baby Ari turns five months of age, his pediatrician gives his mother, Basya, the go-ahead to start feeding him solid foods, and mentions that it might help her small baby gain some weight. Basya wants her scrawny baby to gain weight, and, having heard that babies who eat solids start sleeping through the night, also loves the idea of finally getting uninterrupted sleep.

But Ari has no interest in the baby jars his mother offers. When Basya puts the spoon near Ari’s mouth, he seals his lips. Determined to get him to eat, she starts to play with her baby, and when he laughs or smiles, she slips the food into his mouth. This upsets Ari, who is clearly disinterested in the food. Nevertheless, Basya continues slipping food into the baby’s mouth until he gets so frustrated that he screams. Basya hopes his bad reaction to food is just temporary – she anticipates that feeding him this way will get him more accustomed to food, and persists in doing so despite his resistance.

Ari turns eight months old, and the food battle continues. Basya can count on one hand the amount of foods he agrees to eat. One frustrating morning, during breakfast, Ari grabs the bowl of oatmeal and spoon from Basya’s hands. He clumsily digs up a spoonful and puts it in his mouth. Basya cringes. By the time the spoon reaches Ari’s mouth, it is empty, and its contents are on his shirt and in his hair. Ari gleefully licks the empty spoon, and pokes the oatmeal in the bowl.

Frantically grabbing the bowl and spoon away from Ari, Basya decides that he’s clearly too little to be feeding himself, and she takes charge of the feeding once again. Now she tries some new tricks to coax Ari into eating. She twirls the spoon around in the air as she dances around him, making noises like a helicopter. Then she slips the spoon into his mouth. These tricks work for a bite or two, but to Basya’s chagrin, Ari refuses to eat any more.

At 12 months old, Ari isn’t doing much better with his eating. He is fun-loving and enjoys playing, but never seems interested in food. Basya’s mother-in-law keeps commenting on how thin Ari looks, making Basya feel like an inadequate mother. On top of that, the pediatrician declares that Ari isn’t gaining enough weight and instructs Basya to “do whatever it takes to get food into him.”

Basya stocks up on kid-friendly foods including pretzels, snackers, string cheese, and milk, and delivers snacks and milk bottles to Ari in the playroom every hour or two so he can eat while he plays. He drinks the bottles nicely, and nibbles some pretzels and crackers too. During mealtime, Basya tries feeding Ari chicken, scrambled eggs, and vegetable soup, but Ari never accepts more than a bite or two. Basya wonders if Ari will ever learn to eat with the family at the table.

Let us analyze what went wrong in the above scenario. The trouble began when Ari was five months old.

Basya was prone to the common pitfallduring this stage: introducing solid food too early. Babies develop autonomy at around six months of age. During this transition, the mother will notice that her child is no longer exclusively preoccupied with her. Instead, the baby will start to take interest in the outside world, and may try to control things in his environment. One indication of this autonomy is showing interest in solid foods. This is a natural expression of a child’s appetite and hunger for solid foods, which indicates that he is ready to begin eating.

Unfortunately, Basya started feeding solids to her baby when he was five months old for reasons unrelated to her child’s developmental readiness. She made the common mistake of pushing her agenda to start feeding solids according to a prescribed schedule, as opposed to introducing solids according to the baby’s cues, interest and physical readiness to eat. She then used creative feeding tactics which are intrusive and manipulative at the core, but highly popular among frustrated mothers. Basya was well intended, but was inadvertently ignoring her son’s natural cues and interest – or lack of interest – in food. As she continued to feed solid foods to Ari, who wasn’t developmentally ready for it, the interaction turned into a power struggle. As a result of this new, unhealthy dynamic, Ari began to eat in response to his mother instead of in response to himself, to his own “innate agenda.”

When a baby is pressured to eat, there are typically two ways he will respond. Either he will rebel and refuse the food, commonly developing into a child who often refuses to eat. Alternately, the baby may give in to the pressure, learn to ignore his feelings of fullness, and force himself to eat to make his mother happy. The latter commonly develops into a child who habitually overeats – but both outcomes spoil a child’s relationship with food.

As a parent, Basya needs to understand and support her child’s interest – or lack thereof – in food. Ideally, a baby starts solid food based on physical and developmental readiness and interest, as opposed to age. This readiness usually occurs in babies at around six months, but will be differ in each child. At this age, a nursing mother might notice that her child is still hungry after feedings, or that her child is observing her eat with great interest and trying to grab food off her plate. These signs indicate that the child is likely ready to eat solid foods, and the mother may try to offer it to her baby.

Feeding solid food can be fun if the child is ready and interested. When the parent uses a feeding style which lets her baby set the tempo with feeding, it’s an enjoyable experience for both mother and baby. When introducing solid foods, a mother should feed the way the baby wants to eat – be it fast or slow, little or much, brave or cautious. If the baby purses his lips shut, the mother should accept that he doesn’t want to eat.

Tactics such as tricking the baby into opening his mouth, forcing the spoon into his mouth, or slipping food in when he isn’t looking are not recommended. A parent should give her child many chances to develop a liking for a new food, but never forcing him to eat. For example, if the baby spits out mashed bananas after tasting it, the mother should respect his decision not to eat bananas, but offer this same food again every few days. A baby will be more – not less – likely to experiment with new foods if he knows he has a way out. Tending to the child’s cues with eating supports the child’s autonomy as the child is given control over eating.

As Ari got older, his nutrition continued to suffer. This is because at around eight months, a baby will further develop autonomy. At that point, the child begins to experience himself as a separate entity and cares about doing things himself. Basya is prone to the common pitfall during this stage: suppressing a child’s independence by feeding him, as opposed to allowing him to feed himself.

When Ari grabbed the bowl of oatmeal and spoon away from his mother, he was expressing both a natural interest in food and a desire to be independent and have control over his eating. A child’s natural need for independence is often stronger than his desire for food, and the disappointment of not being granted that independence is so distressing to a child, it drowns out his more subtle cues of hunger and appetite. This may be why Ari refused to eat even if he was actually hungry or liked the food. When Basya refused to allow him feed himself, she was stifling his interest in food and suppressing his independence.

When Ari refused food at dinnertime, he was asserting his right to independently decide what or how much to eat. Additionally, it may have been a physical expression of his fullness (I’m not hungry) or his appetite (I don’t like this food). When Basya persisted in feeding him after he refused food, she was not only denying him independence, but teaching him to ignore his inner cues which should rightfully guide his eating. This can compromise Ari’s nutrition, as well as his emotional wellbeing.

Basya should recognize that a child has an innate need to feed himself. Its no wonder the foods Ari readily accepts are those his mother lets him self-feed, i.e. pretzels, snackers and bottles. While Basya can do a more efficient job of feeding foods such as chicken or oatmeal, and itch to take over when it gets messy, she should give her child age-appropriate finger foods to pick up and allow him to self-feed.

Ideally, Ari should be eating in an age-appropriate seat (such as a highchair), near his parents, and eating the same foods as them. This can pique his natural social interest in partaking in a meal with others. If Basya and her husband are having chicken, potatoes and broccoli for dinner, she should cut these foods into small pieces and place them on her son’s tray. Then, she should allow him to manage his plate of food, while she and her husband manage theirs. If Basya is serving oatmeal, and her baby wants to self-feed, she can try giving one spoon to her baby and keeping one spoon for herself. This gives the baby some autonomy while she still has the ability to feed him productively.

Alternately, Basya can spoon some food onto Ari’s tray and let him lick some off his fingers while she offers him spoonfuls. A baby will likely become visibly relaxed once given the independence he is asking for, and will then be more willing to eat spoonfuls from his mother in addition to his own. If the baby demonstrates that he is finished eating, the mother should accept that. By granting a baby independence in these ways, a mother is eliminating the power struggle, and it will calm the baby’s anxiety. Once a baby feels more content, he will connect with his subtle, inner cues of appetite and hunger and be able to eat better.

Another idea that can help Ari is for Basya to implement structured meal and snack times. When the baby is allowed to graze (eat continuously) on pretzels and bottles between meals, he doesn’t have a chance to build up an appetite and experience hunger for his meal. She should schedule snacks so that her child can be hungry, but not excessively so, when he comes to a meal. The ideal time to eat for anyone is when hunger is noticeable but not extreme, since this sets the stage for more balanced eating choices.

YOUR CHILD IS READY TO START SOLID FOODS WHEN…

  • He can sit up straight in a high chair on his own or with gentle support
  • He can open his mouth when he sees the spoon coming
  • He can close his lips over the spoon and swallow
  • He begins to take an interest in what lies beyond his mother – he might abruptly stop nursing or shove away the bottle, or sit/bolt upright and watch what is going on around him

Brochi Stauber is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist whose goal is to make healthy living a lifestyle reality for individuals and families. She combines clinical nutritional knowledge with an understanding of the behavioral science of food, enabling clients to sustain healthy habits. Contact her at 732-731-9340 or satisfinutrition@gmail.com.

Shira Francis is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Chicago, IL. She provides guidance and counseling in relationships and self-development. Contact her at 773-971-3388 or shirafrancis@gmail.com.