Responsive Feeding: The Basics

Posted by Erica Winn
This Post May Contain Affiliate Links

This post was written in partnership with Austen Lincoln, Pediatric Occupational Therapist

Learning to tune into your baby’s cues around hunger and fullness is a great way to reinforce intuitive eating and foster a positive relationship with food in your little one. This article will teach you the benefits of responsive feeding and give you some tips for how to be a more responsive feeder.

What Is Responsive Feeding?

Responsive feeding is when you closely monitor your baby’s hunger and fullness cues while they’re eating. The purpose of responsive feeding is to understand your baby’s signs of hunger to practice healthy eating.

For example, if your baby turns their head away while you’re feeding them, that means they’re done. In addition, some babies use the “fuss method” and the “food thrower” method to tell you they’re done eating. But, on the other hand, if they keep reaching for the bottle or spoon, it means they’re still hungry.

Understanding your baby’s cues is one of the best things you can do to foster a positive relationship with food.

This article covers:

Image of a baby smiling with their hands in their mouth with text overlay at the bottom of the image.

Practicing responsive feeding will ultimately take pressure off the eating experience and create space for your little one to explore and be curious about food. Over time, they will be a more adventurous and less picky eater.

Benefits of Responsive Feeding

Develops Trust in Hunger and Fullness Cues

Practicing Responsive Eating is one of the best ways to help your baby develop trust in their hunger and fullness cues. This helps them be an intuitive eater.

For example, forcing your baby to eat all of their food when they don’t want to prevents them from understanding their fullness cues. And not giving your baby more food when they are hungry prevents them from understanding their hunger cues.

This is because babies inherently know when they’re hungry or full due to basic physiology. However, if we ignore our child’s cues, they are taught to distrust their innate self-regulation skills. And this becomes the breeding ground for a negative relationship with food later in life. And I believe a negative relationship with food is at the heart of so many illnesses and health issues later in life.

Promotes a Healthy Relationship with Food

Responsive Feeding promotes a healthy relationship with food. A parent who feeds responsively reads and respects their child’s cues and helps that child build enjoyment and confidence in feeding. Babies learn to pay attention to their internal cues of hunger and satiety, their ability to communicate their needs to their caregiver with distinct and meaningful signals, and progress toward independent feeding.

Responding to Baby’s Feeding Cues Increases Trust

Responsive Feeding increases trust between you and your baby. Your child learns to trust that you will feed her, and the parent trusts the child will want to eat. When this happens over and over again, kids and parents learn that they can trust each other at mealtimes, and parents learn to trust that their child will eat the right amount of food to grow well.

Additionally, when a parent is attentive and responding to an infant’s signals in a supportive way, a baby is able to interact with caregivers and the environment in an increasingly robust way.

Builds Parent’s Confidence in Ability to Understand their Child

Parents learn their child’s subtle cues, better understand their child’s preferences, and are more able to meet the needs and abilities of their child.

Creates a Fun Learning Experience

Responsive Feeding is a fun learning experience for both you and your baby because you’re actively involved in your baby’s eating experience. In addition, you’re spending time with your baby and giving them your full attention to fully understand your baby’s eating behavior.

This will ultimately take pressure off the eating experience and create space for your little one to explore and be curious about food. Over time, they’ll be a more adventurous and less picky eater.

Mom, dad and baby sitting at a table with mom feeding baby a puree. Dad is eating an apple.

What Happens When You Don’t Practice Responsive Feeding

Harms Your Child’s Relationship with Food

Non-responsive feeding harms your child’s relationship with food. For example, consistently underfeeding your child teaches them to become obsessed with food. On the other hand, overfeeding your child teaches them to overeat, leading to childhood obesity later on. As your child grows into adulthood, they will most likely succumb to emotional eating because they don’t understand how to self-regulate when it comes to eating.

You can start to see how fostering a positive relationship with food early on has huge ramifications for the rest of your child’s life because the downside of a poor relationship with food is both far-reaching and long-lasting.

How Our Starting Solids Course Can Help You Implement Responsive Feeding

The first step in successful infant feeding is learning how to implement responsive feeding in your baby’s early life so they can move on to solid foods. Our Starting Solids Course incorporates responsive eating principles and the best practices for introducing solid foods.

In addition, this course focuses on incorporating healthy foods into your baby’s diet that support and nurture their developing digestive systems. Your baby’s digestive system is extremely sensitive in the early years of life and has specific dietary guidelines that support child development.

Our course helps take your baby from bottle feeding to solid foods during the first year of their life. It focuses on your baby’s developmental readiness for introducing solids which goes hand in hand with responsive feeding.

The purpose of our Starting Solids Course is to guide both seasoned and new parents every step of the way to promote healthy growth during the early years of your baby’s life. Our goal is to educate as many parents as possible on proper pediatric feeding to produce healthy children and adventurous eaters!

Image of a family eating at the table and having fun feeding one another.

Is your baby ready for solids, but you’re feeling unsure where to start? In our Starting Solids course we teach you all about your baby’s gut health and development. We walk you through exactly what foods to introduce and when, supporting your baby’s optimal development from 6 months to their 1st birthday.

9 Tips for Being a Responsive Feeder

Hopefully now you feel more invested in becoming a responsive feeder. Here are some extra tips for how to be more responsive at mealtimes.

  1. Practice responsiveness early: When breastfeeding or bottle feeding, observe your baby’s arousal state (is she calm and relaxed, or stressed and dysregulated?), physiological signs (is her heart rate and respiration consistent or erratic?), behaviors, and cues of hunger and satiety. Be responsive to those observations, and modify your actions as needed. When we feed infants responsively from the beginning, we help them make the transition to eating solid foods and becoming independent self eaters who love mealtimes.
  2. Include your baby in mealtimes whenever possible: When babies sit at the table (but not in a high chair until they are developmentally ready!), they learn what mealtime is, they can watch others eat, and they learn about ways foods smell and look. Allow them to play with baby utensils and teethers at the table.
  3. Wait until your baby is developmentally ready to introduce solids: Look for physiological signs, motor skill readiness and interest. Our article, developmental signs of readiness for solids, has everything to look for.
  4. Be prompt in responding to cues of hunger and satiety: When you notice your baby is hungry, or full, be prompt in respecting those cues. This lays the groundwork for intuitive eating later on.
  5. Watch for cues about their comfort level with new foods: Signs of comfort include a positive tilt toward you, reaching toward the spoon or the food and assisting with bringing it to the mouth, making happy sounds while looking at the food, and appearing animated and like she wants more. Signs of discomfort include tilting away, turning the head, averting the eyes, and raising the arms as if to push it away.
  6. Experiment with different food combinations: If your baby refuses foods, or is struggling with the oral motor components of feeding (i.e. chewing, swallowing, gagging, etc), experiment with different food combinations, tastes, textures, and methods of encouragement. Provide opportunities for your baby to visually inspect and touch the food, and offer it on different surfaces and utensils.
  7. Feed slowly and patiently: As you notice readiness/hunger cues for food, offer a bite and wait for your baby’s response. Observe the response, adjust your approach if you need to, and offer again. Be mindful of the timing, amount, and tempo you use when feeding.
  8. Be emotionally supportive: Think of feeding times as periods of learning and love. Talk to your baby during feeding, make eye contact, and enjoy this time of interaction and bonding. Do not put pressure on your baby to eat, and wait to think about volume of food being consumed. Negative or stressful feeding experiences have implications in regards to long term feeding development.
  9. Minimize distractions during meals: Try to limit the amount of stimulation in the environment so that both you and your baby can be more present with the feeding experience.
Image with text overlay at the top. Baby chewing on a block with big wide eyes.

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