Parents have a natural instinct to be concerned about what to feed their child, but many parents do not consider how they feed their child. Similar to many life skills a young child learns, responsive parenting practices support the development of self-feeding skills. If worries develop regarding a child’s eating, parents may turn to less responsive practices to push through the worry. The difference between responsive and non-responsive feeding is how parents respond to their child during mealtimes. We are constantly learning and multitasking, trying to manage familial life, so we encourage you to proceed with grace if you are experiencing challenges and have concerns around your child’s eating.
Parents may use non-responsive feeding practices if they have difficulty noticing and responding appropriately to their child’s hunger or fullness cues. This may look like:
Feeding difficulties need a holistic approach, encompassing child factors, parent factors, the family system, socioeconomic and cultural influences. Considering some of the parent factors, four parenting styles have been established in previous research. Authoritative parenting is when a parent is responsive to their child, keeping mealtime boundaries and structure in place, and maintain respect for their child’s food choices.
|Parenting Style||Feeding Style||Characteristics of Parent||Potential Consequences for Child as they Age|
|Authoritative||Responsive||Creates feeding structure, responds appropriately to child’s hunger and satiety cues; is engaged and interactive; supports self feeding||Develops food intake self-regulation and healthy associations with food; develops trust|
|Authoritarian||Non-Responsive||Dominates feeding, uses forceful, pressure, restrictive and bribery strategies||Distress, may develop poor food intake self-regulation, may overindulge on food|
|Uninvolved||No feeding structure, no response to child’s hunger and satiety cues, little engagement|
|Indulgent||No feeding structure, uses food as a comforter (reward) and controller (instrumental)||May overindulge on energy dense, low nutrient foods|
From Harbron et al., 2013
We understand parents are doing their best, and are doing everything they can to help their children eat and grow well. Concerns about a child’s eating may lead a parent to use non-responsive feeding practices to try and overcome these worries. However, non-responsive feeding can actually lead to more stressful mealtime dynamics and difficulty in overall family relationships. Non-Responsive feeding can lead parents to try and control behaviors in less appropriate ways if they have difficulty interpreting their children’s cues. They may respond to what they think their child was communicating, rather than what the child was really trying to express through their behaviors. Pressure feeding practices use external cues (i.e “Take two more bites, then you can be done.”), rather than allowing children to decide when they are done. This might suggest parents do not have confidence in their child’s ability to recognize internal feelings of hunger and fullness. Restrictive or pressure feeding lacks the back and forth relationship between parent and child, and can negatively impact the child’s emotional development and their ability to regulate self-feeding.
Sometimes, non-responsive feeding practices might occur when the parent ignores or is inattentive to the child. One common example of this is when there are competing demands or stresses on the parent. Parents may use food or treats to pacify a child as they try to manage a variety of demands. High levels of anxiety, stress, or conflict, both within feeding or outside of feeding, can impact the parent-child relationship overall. Healing from “trauma” or negative mealtime experiences happens within trusting relationships. Positive and sustainable changes will only take place when a child feels a sense of well-being and emotional security. Long term healing may take place over an extended period, at a pace that is comfortable to the child. A feeding environment where the family routinely eats meals together in a calm, social context without external distractions supports the necessary responsive feeding interactions and modeling of eating behaviors.
As mentioned previously, parents are doing the very best they can, but so are children. Parents are not to blame for feeding challenges. Life gets busy! Every family has specific needs and demands placed on them. Every child is an individual with a unique background and differing needs for support. Children come in a range of sizes, weights, and growth all impacted by various factors. We always have to keep in mind that the pace and nature of progress differ from one child to the next. Their growth should be guided by them and it is our job as parents to follow their lead with love and support. Making small changes, such as setting the same time every day to sit and eat with your child, will support a positive relationship with your child and positive mealtime interactions.
Written by: Nicole Bing, OTD-S
Black, M. M., & Hurley, K. M. (2017). Responsive feeding: Strategies to promote healthy mealtime interactions. In Complementary feeding: building the foundations for a healthy life (Vol. 87, pp. 153-165). Karger Publishers.
Ellyn Satter Institute. Raise a healthy child who is a joy to feed.https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/how-to-feed/the-division-of-responsibility-in-feeding/.
Harbron, J., & Booley, S. (2013). Responsive feeding: establishing healthy eating behaviour early on in life. South African Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 26, S141-S149.
Rowell, K.; Wong, G.; Cormack, J; Moreland, H. (2021). Responsive Feeding Therapy: Values and Practice. https://www.responsivefeedingtherapy.com/rft-values-and-principles