Responsive feeding for infants | 3 min read

Little ones are experts at communicating hunger, appetite, and satiety – a skill we, unfortunately, lose or choose to ignore as we get older. Infants communicate their fundamental needs while feeding through crying, decreased interest, cooing sounds, playfulness, or aversive facial expressions. Parents must interpret these cues correctly – and that is responsive feeding. Responsive feeding nourishes a child without force, which prevents obesity and sets the standard for a healthy relationship with food. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) describes responsive feeding as:

  • Feeding slowly and patiently, and encourage children to eat, but do not force them.
  • If your child refuses food, experiment with different food combinations, tastes, textures, and methods of encouragement.
  • Minimise distractions during meals if they lose interest quickly or change the scenery if they get easily bored.
  • Remember that feeding times are periods of learning and love – talk to children during feeding, with eye-to-eye contact.

Eating is as much a social skill to acquire as any other; let your baby get used to the ‘hows’ of eating—sitting up, resting between bites, and stopping when full. It is never too early to develop healthy eating habits. 

As your baby grows older, introduce family mealtimes. Your child will not sleep better with an overfed tummy; watch for cues that he/she has had enough to eat. Do not overfeed.

Tips for parents to make changes when feeding and responding to cues are the following:

  • Consistency. Start with pureed, mashed, or semi-solid foods. You can make it more interactive and tactile by providing steamed versions of the vegetable or fruit that ensures nutritional adequacy with direct feeding and the opportunity to explore the food itself. Don’t cut the food too small to avoid a choking hazard. From 8 months onwards, infants should progress to finger foods and more textured meals and build to family-like meals by 12 months of age.
  • Frequency. As your baby grows, they require more energy and nutrients, but their stomach is still too small to tolerate large quantities. We should then increase the meal frequency from one meal per day to two, three, and eventually a snack in-between. The milk feeds will also become lesser but are still very much needed during the weaning phase. 

Your baby will experience changes when starting with solid food, and it is crucial that you also respond appropriately:

Stools will become more solid and variable in colour and have a much more pungent smell. Some veggies also change the colour, so before calling the paediatrician, remember beetroot may make it red/pink, green vegetables may turn the stool to a deep-green colour. When serving more textured or whole food, stools may contain undigested pieces of food. All of this is normal.

Signs to be aware of and be a cue to go slower or review preparation methods are when stools frequency is much less or harder to pass or if your infant’s stool is loose, watery, or full of mucus. If the stools continue to be loose, watery, or full of mucus, or your infant is constipated without resolve, contact your clinic or paediatrician.

Additional breast milk feeds and/or a little water can be added when starting with solid foods. Use a Sippy cup and limit the intake to a cup a day. 

Every child is different, and some days can be easier, some more challenging. We often get caught in the rush. Remind yourself that your infant or child is not aware of the rush or the deadline you must make. They are simply learning a required skill and only need patience and a parent to be present. 

Nadia J van Rensburg, RD(SA), Rooted Natural, Co-founder

Meiselman HL.  Handbook of Eating and Drinking: Interdisciplinary perspectives. Hetherington MM. Infant Appetite: From Cries to Cues and Responsive Feeding. 1st Ed. 2020, p 373-389.  

Pérez-Escamilla, R, Segura-Pérez S, Lott M. Feeding guidelines for infants and young toddlers. Nutrition Today. 2017, 52(5), p. 223-231. 

WHO. Infant and young child feeding.

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