Intuitive Eating and Self Regulation:
Can kids really be intuitive eaters?
Intuitive eating is all the rage right now in weight loss and adult nutrition. Simply put, if you are an intuitive eater you never need a diet! You pay attention to your hunger cues and fullness cues, and you do not eat for emotional reasons. The theory that has its roots back to the 1930s when Clara M. Davis did some interesting research on letting babies choose the diets. The term was first coined in 1995 by Evelyn Tribole M.S. R.D. and Elyse Resch M.S. R.D. F.A.D.A.
Are we all born intuitive eaters?
Intuitive eating is a theory. And the theory says, yes, we are all born knowing how to self-regulate what we eat. It is later, as we grow up, that parents confuse hunger and fullness signals and children lose this ability.
Newborns can usually tell us when they are hungry and full
This is why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends responsive feeding. As a parent or caregiver, you must learn to pay attention and act accordingly. This means that you let your baby nurse or take a bottle whenever they look hungry and let them decide how much to take at a time. It can be nerve wracking and confusing for parents, and especially hard if you want your kid on a schedule (or daycare dictates a schedule!).
Do your best, learn about hunger and fullness cues. In general babies signal when they are hungry and when they are full.
Some signs your baby might be hungry include:
- Whimpering and lip-smacking
- Waking and looking more alert
- Bringing hands towards mouth and belly
- Sucking movements, especially sucking on their hands
- Nuzzling against your breast or opening their mouth towards you
- Even stretching or yawning can be signs of hunger in babies!
Some signs your baby might be done eating are:
- Stopping and starting frequently
- Pulling off the breast or bottle
- Ignoring the breast or bottle
- Falling asleep at the breast (except the little ones can sometimes just get too comfortable in their nook!)
- Getting distracted
- Turning away or closing their mouth when you offer the breast or bottle
Why are watching for these cues so important?
We know that the first 5 years in a kids’ life, especially the first 1000 days, are a critical period as they go from drinking milk to consuming an adult diet. Children learn more about food and eating during this time than any other time in their life. We also know that being in tune to fullness and hunger cues can help prevent obesity later in life.
Now on to solids. Are kids still intuitive eaters at 6 months and up?
Well… good question. Generally, we think they are. But what the differences are between kids and what affects eating, is where it becomes a little trickier and the evidence is less clear cut (sadly!). The equivalent of intuitive eating in children is the trust model, which is another theory developed by Ellyn Satter RD, MS, MSSW, a registered dietitian and family therapist. This model suggests that any child can self-regulate. But, environmental factors, like parent’s behavior, messes it up. Also, kids that are already at risk for obesity (having obese parents) have a harder time holding on to self-regulation. There is some indication that young kids can do it though.
According to the trust model, how do parents ruin their kid’s ability to be intuitive eaters?
You can be too controlling. A study in preschoolers showed that when they were presented with different meals, those kids with moms that were less controlling of their feeding were better able to self-regulate. Mothers that try to control what their kids eat often see it backfire. It is hard to know though whether the trust model really works in kids that are already obese. Restrictive feeding in general can also lead to poor self-esteem and negative self-evaluation, especially in young girls.
Ahh! There is so much to process here. What should I do?
We all want our children to have a healthy relationship with food! You don’t need to have an opinion about intuitive eating to follow our tips for raising a healthy, happy eater.
- You know your child better than anyone. At any age you can learn their hunger and fullness cues. You can help your child to recognize them too.
- Try to avoid doing these things:
- Restricting foods. What does restriction look like? It looks like: “no second helpings” or not allowing candy ever.
- Calling foods good and bad. “no cookies or chips allowed EVER in the house because they are bad foods”.
- Begging or using pressure. “Please just have one more bite”
- Using food as rewards. “Thank you for finishing your veggies, you now get dessert.”
- Stick to the mantra, “You provide, your child decides”: Many experts use this one liner and we love it! Let me break it down for you:
You provide: What do you control?
- What foods: Keep it balanced! You decide what is placed on the table.
- When: You determine the intervals, you want your child to eat. For kids older than 2 years that typically, is three meals and 2-3 snacks a day.
Your child decides:
- If they want to eat.
- What they will eat.
- How much they will eat.
- Keep in mind the big picture: Your goal is to provide nutritious food. Trust that your child will eat what they need, even if at one meal they only eat 4 dinner rolls. (It happens!). Over time, we know that most kids do actually meet their dietary requirements and balance out their diet. Look at the whole week. Looking at one meal at a time is just a snapshot and is not helpful.
Intuitive eating is a theory and one way of feeding your kids. We are here to provide you with information and evidence, so you can make the best choices for your situation and your family. You got this!