How to adopt responsive feeding with your child?


It’s conference season: Maude was at the Canadian Nutrition Society


Maude attended the 2018 Annual conference of the Canadian Nutrition Society a couple of weeks ago in Halifax, Canada.


In the world of science and academic research, conferences are highlights! It’s the place to present your own new research, and to learn about colleagues’s research and findings. Attending conferences can be expensive (registration fee + cost to travel to the venue) and time consuming (often away from your family!). BUT it is also super invigorating as you are surrounded by passionate researchers, and your brain just soaks up so much new info.


Maude’s favourite session: Responsive feeding for infants


Maude’s favourite session was all about promoting responsive feeding, and the role parents and caregivers have to play from birth until the establishment of eating habits. Research results were presented by researchers Dr Alison Ventura, PhD, from California Polytechnic State University, USA and by Dr Misty Rossiter, RD and PhD from the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada.



What is Responsive feeding and how can parents promote it?


Responsive feeding is when the parent/caregiver is in tune with the child.
Parents recognize, understand and learn what their child needs. Parents meet their child’s need in a predictable way, in an appropriate way for the age and developmental stage of their child. It leads to a balance between the parents and the child, where no one exert excessive control. The parents don’t show restrictive feeding practices, but the child also doesn’t show excessive control leading the parents to adopt indulging feeding practices.


A responsive parent:
  • understands his/her infant’s cues and developmental needs
  • modifies his/her parenting behaviours and strategies based on his/her infant cues
  • learns the specifics cues of his/her child, and avoid comparing with older siblings or past parenting experiences


Responsive feeding is offering food to a child that is hungry.


It is not about feeding because food is available, because the bowl is still half full, because it is time to eat, because the child is bored or because the food is just too good to be wasted.


It is not about encouraging the child to eat, forcing him/her to finish his/her plate, brag or manipulate with food. It is not rewarding good behavior with food. It is not using technology (tv, ipad, phone) to ensure proper food intake either.


Be attentive to your child hunger and fullness cues by being present and in the moment.


Responsive feeding: is my child full or hungry?


Ideally, we want everyone to be in touch with their body signals of fullness and hunger. It starts with infants, who are literally learning how to eat, how to recognize these signals and how to honour them.


Simply put, the cycle of hunger and fullness looks like this image below. The ability to recognize and respect these signals is called self-regulation. Being able to self-regulate is an essential skill to acquire. Being in tune with our own signals is the first step to respecting these signals as it’s ultimately our body way to tell us what is right for us!



Note that there is a step between “eating” and “expressing fullness”: recognizing the feeling of fullness. That’s a more subtle step, one that is often overlooked (or lost!) in today’s society where food is abundant and we sometimes eat mindlessly. So here is a good reminder that the cycle of hunger and fullness is all in nuances, and is specific to each person!


Signs your baby is hungry can include: restlessness, irritability, crying, rooting, sucking on his/her fist, smacking his lips


Signs your baby is full can include: closing his/her lips, refusing to open the mouth, turning the head away, refusing to eat, falling asleep, getting distracted, wanting to play, crying


Responsive feeding involves you recognizing your baby’s cues and matching them with the stage on the cycle of hunger and fullness


What if I cannot read my baby’s clues?


As you spend time with your child, you will get to learn and “intuitively” know what s/he wants or needs. Trust and respect his/her clues, and trust your parental instinct and judgement. You both will grow together and learn from each other. A good way to start is to follow the golden rule. As parents you decide what, when, where and how. Trust your child to know how much and whether to eat. It will promote his/her autonomy and self-confidence, and eventually his/her self-regulation.


Responsive feeding can be promoted for infant formula-fed or breast-fed, and for children who are learning to eat solid foods. The feelings of fullness and hunger are present in all healthy babies!


Another good way to promote responsive feeding is by being a role model. Children learn by observing and imitating parents and adults. If you get in tune with your feelings of fullness and hunger and honor them most meals, you are promoting the importance of respecting our bodies’s signals.


Responsive feeding can be adopted by all parents, for all children


What are the benefits of responsive feeding?


Young children are able to self regulate, but their cues are more subtle to recognize than toddlers and adults who that can clearly speak. Parents need to be present and attentive to the signs that their child might display. After all, responsive feeding also encourage the social aspect of feeding and eating. Sharing a meal, discussing what it tastes, how it smells and looks. Responsive feeding is all about being present and being together.


Responsive feeding promotes the establishment of a healthy eating pattern for life. The child is trusted to know when to eat and when to stop.


Responsive feeding: it’s more than just the parents!


Where will your children spend most of their days if both parents work full time? Daycare! Grandparents! Nanny! All responsible adults with huge potential to impact your child’s development. Just like we encourage you to adopt responsive feeding at home, we hope all children will have amazing caregivers who will also adopt responsive feeding.


Caregivers act as role models for your child. Their own relationship to food is going to transpose onto their behavior, and your child is gonna grasp on that. In addition, the food environment at the daycare is important and includes: what type of foods are offered, the caregivers’ attitude towards food, the meal schedule, the rules surrounding portions and snacking.


Although you won’t control a lot of this (you probably won’t even witness it as you are not there during the day!), here are aspects you might want to question the daycare about. Research has shown that these aspects favour the establishment of a healthy relationship to food in daycare settings.


Family-style meals: everyone eats at the same table, at the same time, and the same meal. That includes the caregivers who act as the role model. Kids interact, learn from each other, and learn from the adults at the table: table manner, exploring new food, how to drink or use utensils, how to behave when you don’t like the meal, what to do when you are full, etc. For older kids, it is suggested to even let them serves themselves by placing the meal in the middle of the table. This way kids can control if and how much they want to eat that meal.


Daily routine: kids self-regulate their food intake better when they know the meal and snacks routine. They can decide if they are hungry at that specific moment, knowing that food will be available in X amount of time. They can respect their hunger cues by deciding to either eat now or later.


Open snack time: ideally, snack would be served during a “window” of time rather than a fix time (e.g. from 1:30 to 2:30pm rather than at 2pm on the dot). This one can be more difficult to implement because of different logistic reasons: potential mess when kids serve themselves snacks, food safety concerns as it is harder to supervise kids eating all at different times. Unfortunately, caregivers can sometimes be reluctant to implement as they might be concerned that children might overeat if they have snacks available or not eat because they are busy playing.

 Caregivers and parents have hopes that kids will develop lifelong healthy relationships with food. The thing to remember is that caregivers and parents should trust and encourage children to self-regulate, and give them the opportunity to do so everyday.


Responsive feeding strengthen children’s self-efficacy, self-regulation and emotional management, all great skills for their future.




Ventura AL. Associations between Breastfeeding and Maternal Responsiveness: A Systematic Review of the LiteratureAdvances in Nutrition, Volume 8, Issue 3, 1 May 2017, Pages 495–510.


Infant Feeding recommendations from the Government of Canada


Responsive feeding: supporting close and loving relationships. The baby friendly initiative. UNICEF United Kingdom. October 2016.

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