How to Help Babies and Toddlers Enjoy Mealtimes

Guest Author: Stephanie Cohen, M.A., CCC-SLP, CLC

Overwhelmed by all the information out there about how to help your baby learn to eat solid food? Start with responsive feeding! Responsive feeding is a child-led approach to helping infants and toddlers enjoy eating and learn new skills. This means we let babies and toddlers lead the way and respond promptly when they communicate that they are hungry or full. It also means we notice which foods they are interested in at the meal and offer those foods in a safe way. And lastly, we do all we can to help them be as independent as possible and learn to self-feed from the start. Responsive feeding is recommended for infants and toddlers by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization. This approach can help family mealtimes be more positive and enjoyable and lead to stronger family relationships, more consistent growth patterns, more varied diet, less conflict at mealtimes, and greater independence at mealtimes.

You can start responsive feeding from birth by learning how your baby tells you they are hungry or full and responding promptly. Look for the following signs that may indicate your baby is hungry: waking from sleep, increased movement of arms and legs, increased mouth movement, bringing hands to mouth, more fisted hands, and beginning to suck when a breast or bottle is offered. Crying is a late hunger sign. Your baby may show you they are done eating or full by discontinuing sucking, turning away from the breast or bottle, closing their mouth, and having relaxed and open hands. When parents feed infants when they are hungry and stop when they are full, babies and parents build trust in each other over time. Parents learn to trust that babies will communicate that they are hungry, and babies learn to trust that adults will feed them when they are ready and stop when they are full. It is helpful for parents to remember that babies don’t always consume the same amount at each feeding, or even over the course of a day, just like adults! Responsive feeding means your baby is in the lead and learning to eat just what their body needs at each mealtime. When parents watch for and respond appropriately to what their baby is communicating, this creates positive feeding experiences. Positive feeding experiences motivate babies to continue to want to eat!

You can continue to use responsive feeding when you introduce solid foods to your baby. The best way to do this is to incorporate your baby in family mealtimes from the beginning. This doesn’t mean preparing a four-course meal at the table! It can be as simple as sharing bits of the scrambled eggs, pho, or curry you’re eating! Babies show us when they are ready to try foods and show us which foods they are interested in at mealtimes; they often love flavorful family foods. When we notice their interest and respond by offering them appropriate foods and learning opportunities, they can learn to eat based on internal motivation. All children may need a few modifications for safety, but over time, and with opportunities to watch others eat, babies can learn to use their hands to self-feed and use their mouths in new ways to chew and swallow. You might occasionally help your baby bring food to their mouth, but in general, responsive parents only do just enough to help babies be independent.

We can let children lead the way at mealtimes through toddlerhood and beyond! When we maintain responsivity at mealtimes, children can tune into their bodies and eat enough to feel satisfied (not what adults might tell them to eat). Responsive feeding can be used with infants and toddlers of all abilities, even those with feeding challenges. If you are concerned about your child’s feeding skills and want to learn more about how responsive feeding can help your child, talk to your pediatrician, EI therapist, or service coordinator.

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Stephanie Cohen, M.A., CCC-SLP, CLC is a speech-language pathologist, lactation counselor, and mother who has been working in early intervention for more than 22 years. Her mission is to empower each caregiver to be their child’s best teacher by supporting emotional connection, successful mealtime learning, and early language development. Stephanie shares tips and resources to support communication and feeding development on social media (@Learntotalkwithme on TikTok and Instagram) and her My First Learn-to-Talk Book series (Sourcebooks) has emerged as a valuable tool for families, helping them to use developmental principles to support communication development. Stephanie is also a co-founder of the Chicago Feeding Group, a 501(c)(3), and The Get Permission Institute.

Publication date: 2023
Originally published in the EIC Newsletter: Volume 36, Issue 1