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What is Responsive Feeding? (Healthy Baby Feeding Tips)

Responsive feeding isn’t simply a way to recognize hunger and fullness. It’s so much more.

Being a responsive parent when feeding offers emotional support during child feeding, and optimizes healthy growth, inside and out. For new parents, this is the most important thing you can do when your start feeding your baby.

In this article, you’ll learn about the responsive feeding approach, non-responsive feeding, how to recognize the signs of hunger and fullness, and 5 easy ways to practice responsive feeding.

Mom feeding baby using responsive feeding practices.
Photo by Tanaphong Toochinda | Unsplash

Responsive Feeding Definition

Responsive feeding is an attentive way of feeding young children, including watching for their hunger cues and responding to them by offering food.

It also pays attention to fullness cues, ending the meal when a young child indicates he’s satisfied.

Responsive feeding is a two-way relationship, emphasizing baby’s cues, between the parent and child.

Parents closely watch for appetite signals from their children and use a responsive approach to meet their infant’s needs. 

To be good at responsive feeding, you need to monitor your child’s hunger and fullness by learning and recognizing her appetite cues.

How Children Show Their Appetite Cues

During infant feeding, babies show the tell-tale signs of hunger and fullness, but they’re not typically language-based cues.

They wiggle, cry out, or appear uncomfortable.

Babies may “root” for the breast or bottle.

Toddlers can tell you when they are hungry and when they are full with their emerging language skills.

Some toddlers can even sign hunger and fullness.

Older children can verbalize hunger and fullness, too, but may confuse boredom and emotions with true hunger.

As a parent, your job is to pay attention to these appetite cues so you don’t over-feed or underfeed your child.

Importance of Responsive Feeding 

When you respond promptly and accurately to your baby’s appetite signs, you show her warmth, love, and support.

To develop her social and emotional health, your baby needs to know that they can count on you to meet their needs –when they need them.

This foundation of trust is the most important aspect of the parent-child relationship at this young age.

When you respect your toddler’s fullness, you honor and sustain their natural-born appetite regulator.

In other words, you preserve the native ability to recognize the body is full, and support the appropriate response to stop eating.

If you question your older child’s hunger (because they just ate lunch), you help them tune in to their appetite and identify hunger as the primary reason for eating.

This helps them discern real hunger from emotional eating, or eating in the absence of hunger.

As kids get older, it may get more difficult to navigate eating habits and food choices for these reasons.

What are Baby Hunger Cues and Fullness Signs?

Responsive feeding sets the stage for helping your child sustain and regulate their appetite.

And it begins with recognizing your baby’s needs around hunger and fullness.

[Want to learn so much more about feeding your baby? Grab my book The Smart Mom’s Guide to Starting Solids!]

Baby Hunger Cues:

Your baby fusses or cries.

Fussing or crying doesn’t always equal hunger. It can mean other things such as discomfort, tiredness or even boredom.

Your baby smiles, gazes or coos at you during a feeding.

Your baby is enjoying her food and wants to continue eating.

Your baby moves her head toward the spoon or bottle.

Your baby wants to eat.

Your baby reaches for or points to food.

As your baby gets a bit older, she will be clearer about her desire to eat.

While pointing may not mean hunger (she might like a food and want to eat it, even though she just ate), it gives you the indication that she is learning to connect food with appetite and eating.

Your baby shows excitement when food is offered. 

Your baby is responding to food and this may be a sign she is ready to eat.

Your baby uses sounds, words, or signs to indicate hunger.

At the end of infancy, it gets easier to read your baby’s hunger cues, as she can communicate in multiple ways.

Signs of Fullness:

Your baby decreases the rate of sucking or stops sucking.

Slowing the rate of eating is a sign that fullness is closing in.

Try not to force the rest of the bottle, as this may overfeed her.

Your baby spits out the nipple.

A clear sign of being full and done with eating.

Your baby becomes easily distracted or pays more attention to the environment around her.

Generally, young children eat vigorously when they are hungry and consume a greater percentage of calories early in the meal.

It’s important to minimize distractions at feeding sessions so that you can read your baby’s appetite and your baby can focus on eating.

Your baby moves her head away from food.

When your baby is older and eating solid foods, dodging the spoon or slouching away from food may be a sign of fullness.

 Your baby slows the pace of eating.

When your baby is eating solids and is approaching fullness, she will slow down the rate of her food consumption.

As your baby gets older, it becomes easier to recognize her fullness.

For example, she may bat at the spoon, turn her head away, clench her mouth shut, shake her head to say no, play with food, throw it, or just simply say “no” or “all done.”

Mom feeding a child in the high chair using responsive feeding.

What is Non-Responsive Feeding?

Non-responsive feeding is the opposite of responsive feeding.

Unfortunately, non-responsive feeding is a common thing.

I remember my first big speaking engagement ten years ago.

I showed a picture of a baby sitting in a bouncer with a bottle propped up for feeding.

The bottle was surrounded by rolled towels…an effort to prevent the bottle from rolling out of the baby’s mouth.

There were gasps from the audience.

I showed a picture of a toddler sitting in a highchair alone, while the mom was on the telephone in the next room.

There were heads shaking back and forth and tongues tsk-tsk-ing.

These are examples of non-responsive feeding and can lead to feeding problems, mistrust, and dysfunctional eating behaviors.

Non-responsive feeding can occur in two ways:

  1. You aren’t around or engaged with your baby or child during feeding.
  2. You are ignoring his or her appetite signals.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re on the phone, doing laundry, or washing dishes.

The point is when it’s time to feed your child, it’s time to engage, not disengage.

Ignoring Appetite & Pressure to Eat

In the case of ignoring appetite signals, I see this most commonly in the infant and toddler years.

Parents may ignore fullness, pushing the spoon into baby’s mouth to get him to finish the contents of the baby food jar.

In this example, babies may be pushed to eat more and beyond their appetite.

(This is one of the main arguments against spoon feeding, and for baby-led weaning.)

On the opposite side, parents may not respond by providing meals or snacks when their child is truly hungry.

This may lead a child to feel desperate to eat, and lose control of eating when food is available, and perhaps overeat.

Not getting meals and snacks on a consistent schedule is a risk for under-eating, too.

Non-Responsive Feeding Practices are Risky

Researchers have looked at non-responsive feeding and its impact on health.

Most of the research indicates that when appetite signs aren’t acknowledged and responded to appropriately, you run the risk of overriding your child’s ability to regulate his appetite.

For example, your baby is done eating.

He pulls off the bottle and turns his face away from it.

However, there are 2 more ounces left in the bottle and you’d really like him to finish it.

You put the bottle back in his mouth and encourage him to drink it.

You may think: What’s wrong with two more ounces?

When you push your baby to finish (the bottle, the baby jar of food, or the plateful of dinner), you override that internal barometer about which I’ve been talking.

The one that regulates your child’s appetite.

In other words, you ignore the full factor.

Repeatedly encouraging more food intake, beyond fullness, while ignoring these signs is training your baby or child to overeat.

It’s being non-responsive with feeding.

Other research tells us that children who aren’t fed in a responsive manner are at higher risk for unhealthy weight gain.

When children aren’t good at regulating their appetite, they can overeat, eat as an emotional response to negative emotions or discomfort, and misinterpret hunger.

If you’ve ever met an adult who is on and off diets, constantly hungry or never hungry, then you’ve probably met someone who somehow lost connection with their internal appetite regulator.

This may be due to non-responsive feeding in childhood, or another factor like chronic dieting.

5 Ways to Adopt Responsive Feeding Practices

If you want to have successful mealtimes, help your child develop healthy eating habits, and steer clear of feeding disorders or dysfunctional eating behaviors, you’ll want to pay more attention to responsive feeding. Here are some simple ways to get started: 

1. Look at your child when feeding her.

Eye contact and touch are two ways you can connect with your child during feeding.

When you are connected, you will be better able to recognize your child’s appetite signals and respond to them quickly.

2. Notice her subtle signs of hunger and fullness

If you have a baby, the signs of hunger and fullness aren’t always obvious.

You will need to pay close attention to your child’s internal cues and figure them out along the way.

Before you know it, you’ll recognize your baby’s signs.

Maybe you have a “crier,” a “rooter,” or a perhaps a baby who flails her arms when hungry.

Try to connect your baby’s actions to patterns of hunger and their satiety cues.

3. Respond to signs of hunger by giving food

Once you recognize your child’s overt or covert hunger signals, give those signs some love and attention.

Acknowledge them and act accordingly. In other words, feed your child.

4. Respond to fullness by stopping the feeding

On the other hand, if you are aware that your child is full (indicated verbally or non-verbally), then it’s time to end the meal or feeding session.

If you’re a mama that worries your child didn’t eat enough, it’s time to pull out your faith card.

Have faith your child knows how much to eat and when to stop eating.

Remember, all children are born with this sense and ability.

Our parenting actions can mess it up, leading to a lifelong effect on how your child eats and feels about food and eating. Really.

The other good news? There’s more than one meal a day – in fact, there are multiple opportunities for your child to eat.

Trust that he’ll make up any gaps along the way.

5. Use your monitoring skills

The more you are aware of how well, and what, your child is eating throughout the day, the better equipped you are to respond to pleas of “I’m hungry!” or “I’m full!”

Monitoring simply means you know what’s going on with your child’s eating.

It can increase your ability to stay responsive, attentive, and appropriately reactive through feeding.

This article was originally published in August 2018 | Updated in December 2023.

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