Why parents should use responsive feeding with their babies
by Claire McCarthy, MD, Harvard Health Blog
October 2, 2017

The habits we learn early can stay with us for a lifetime ó which is why itís better to learn good habits early, not bad ones. This is especially true with eating habits. More and more, research shows that overweight babies grow into overweight children, who grow into overweight adults. One of the very best ways to prevent obesity is to start before they are two years old, preferably right at birth.

Thatís why the American Academy of Pediatrics really wants parents to know about responsive feeding.

Most parents feel better when their baby eats more ó and eats on a predictable schedule. Itís comforting and reassuring. It helps parents feel certain that their baby has had enough to eat. It also makes it easier to organize the day or give instructions to babysitters. But when we push babies to eat more than they want, or to eat when they arenít hungry, it can teach them bad habits that put them at higher risk of obesity.

Itís really important that babies eat when they are hungry and eat only as much as they need. Thatís where responsive feeding comes in. Responsive feeding is learning your babyís cues for hunger, and for being full, and responding appropriately to those cues.

Here are some signs that a baby might be hungry:

  • she puts her hands in or near her mouth
  • she makes sucking noises
  • she puts her hands on her belly
  • she is more active, moving her hands and feet
  • she cries ó but this is a late sign, often coming after the earlier signs didnít bring food.

Parents should respond warmly and promptly to these signs, and should let the baby stop eating once sheís full. Signs of being full include:

  • stopping and starting feeding frequently
  • spitting out or ignoring the bottle or breast
  • unlatching from the breast
  • turning the head away
  • slowing down, or falling asleep.

If a baby is showing these signs, parents should stop feeding, even if the baby has eaten less than usual, or less than the parent would like them to eat. That way, the baby learns to listen to her hunger cues and stop eating when sheís not hungry anymore, habits that can help keep her at a healthy weight for life.

If a parent is worried that their baby isnít getting enough to eat, or isnít growing well enough, the best thing to do is call the doctor and make an appointment. At the appointment, the baby can be weighed and examined to check for any problems. If there are problems, the doctor and parents can make a plan to address them and get the baby back on track. If there arenít any, parents can feel comfortable listening to and following the babyís cues.

The bottom line for parents: you provide, your baby decides.