Responsive feeding

Responsive feeding is recommended internationally as the best way to feed young children. In this blog, we explain what responsive feeding is, what the benefits of this approach are, and how you can practice it.

What is responsive feeding?

Responsive feeding is a two-way relationship between a child and their caregiver, whereby:

  • A child communicates that they are hungry or full
  • The caregiver recognises the child’s hunger or fullness cues and responds in a prompt, emotionally supportive, contingent, and developmentally appropriate manner, and
  • The child experiences a predictable, nurturing response from the caregiver.

What are the benefits of responsive feeding?

Responsive feeding provides benefits to both children, and their caregivers.

Strengthens relationships

People need to experience a sense of belonging and attachment to other people. By learning and responding to a child’s feeding cues in a nurturing way, caregivers help children feel safe and secure. Children learn that they are safe in their environment and that their caregivers are reliable, trustworthy, and will meet their needs.

Promotes autonomy

Autonomy is a fundamental human psychological need, and it refers to a person’s need for freedom of choice and control over their actions. When feeding children, caregivers must allow children to decide whether to eat and how much to eat from the foods they have offered them. Respecting a child’s feeding cues and preferences, and refraining from trying to control what or how much they eat (e.g., by pressuring, restricting, or rewarding) helps to support a child’s autonomy.

Promotes competance

Competence is another important human psychological need, and it refers to a person’s need to feel a sense of effectiveness and mastery when undertaking an activity. If caregivers offer types of foods or use feeding methods that are insufficiently or excessively challenging for a child, then the child will not be in their “zone of proximal development”, and this can impede learning and skill development. Responsive feeding encourages caregivers to offer foods and use feeding methods which match their child’s level of maturation and development, and to facilitate their child’s progression from their current skill level to their potential skill level.

Encourages eating in accordance with hunger and fullness cues

Medical issues notwithstanding, babies are born with the innate capability to eat and stop eating in response to their internal hunger and fullness cues. Responsive feeding encourages caregivers to be attuned to, and respect a child’s feeding cues. Feeding in this way helps to preserve a child’s innate capability to eat and stop eating in response to their internal hunger and fullness cues.

Develops self-regulation skills

Self-regulation is the ability to understand and manage your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. In a food context, self-regulation refers to a person’s ability (both innate and socialised), to eat and stop eating in response to their internal hunger and fullness cues. Responsive feeding fosters a child’s ability to self-regulate their food intake and make healthy food-based decisions as they grow. For example, children will learn to select appropriate foods and portion sizes to meet their energy needs, or refrain from eating for reasons unrelated to hunger (e.g., self-soothing, boredom).

Promotes optimal development and growth

Responsive feeding contributes to and supports a child’s optimal cognitive, emotional, and social development. Responsive feeding also helps children to develop healthier food preferences, increase their intake of healthier foods, reduce their intake of ultra-processed foods and sugar-sweetened beverages, prevent under and over-nutrition, and develop positive relationships with food and eating.  

Fosters positive mealtimes

Responsive feeding can help to prevent or reduce fussy eating behaviours, and decrease mealtime power struggles, tension, and stress.

How do I practice responsive feeding?

Feeding children in a responsive way is recommended throughout all stages of a child’s growing-up years. However, it is especially important in the first few years of a child’s life.

Caregivers can practice responsive feeding when breastfeeding, bottle feeding, or introducing solid foods during infancy,  and when providing meals and snacks to toddlers and older children.

For infants aged 0-6 months:

As a caregiver you should:

  • Make sure your baby is comfortable and minimise distractions
  • Watch for their hunger cues and respond to them promptly
  • Feed on-demand
  • Focus on being warm, affectionate, and nurturing during feeding
  • Watch for your baby’s fullness cues and stop feeding them when they are full (note: this is especially important for bottle-fed babies – go by your baby’s cues, not the amount of milk or formula in their bottle)

For infants aged 6-12 months:

As a caregiver you should:

  • Make sure your baby is comfortable and minimise distractions
  • Watch for their hunger cues and respond to them promptly
  • Focus on being warm, affectionate, and nurturing during feeding
  • Introduce solids to your baby, offering a variety of tastes and developmentally appropriate textures
  • Establish a mealtime routine and eat with your baby as often as you can
  • Assist your baby to feed themselves
  • Respond positively to your baby’s attempts to self-feed
  • Watch for your baby’s fullness cues and stop feeding them when they are full

For toddlers aged 12-24 months:

As a caregiver you should:

  • Make sure your toddler is comfortable and minimise distractions
  • Watch for their hunger cues and respond to them promptly
  • Focus on being warm, affectionate, and nurturing during feeding
  • Offer a variety of nutritious foods with different colours, flavours, and textures
  • Maintain a mealtime routine, and offer regular meals and snacks each day (e.g., 3 meals, and 1-3 snacks).
  • Eat with your toddler as often as you can
  • Assist your toddler to feed themselves (with their hands or child-safe utensils)
  • Respond positively to your toddler’s attempts to self-feed
  • Watch for your toddler’s fullness cues and stop feeding them when they are full

Get to know your child’s feeding cues

As you would have come to realise, the practice of responsive feeding hinges on a caregiver’s ability to recognise and respond to their child’s feeding cues. Read our blog on feeding cues to learn how infants and toddlers communicate that they’re hungry or full.

References:

Black, M. M., & Aboud, F. E. (2011). Responsive feeding is embedded in a theoretical framework of responsive parenting. The Journal of Nutrition, 141(3), 490-494. https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.110.129973

Cormack, J., Rowell, K., & Postăvaru, G. I. (2020). Self-determination theory as a theoretical framework for a responsive approach to child feeding. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 52(6), 646-651. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jneb.2020.02.005

Daniels, L. A. (2019). Feeding practices and parenting: A pathway to child health and family happiness. Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, 74(Suppl2), 29–42. https://doi.org/10.1159/000499145

Harbron, J., Booley, S., Najaar, B., & Day, C. (2013). Responsive feeding: establishing healthy eating behaviour early on in life. South African Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 26. S141-149. https://www.ajol.info/index.php/sajcn/article/view/97829

Rowell, K.; Wong, G.; Cormack, J; Moreland, H. (2021). Responsive feeding therapy: Values and practice. https://www.responsivefeedingtherapy.com/rft-values-and-principles

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