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Why Children Eat the Way They Do - Starting from Day One




Excerpted from
Feeding Your Child for Lifelong Health: Birth Through Age Six
By Susan B. Roberts, Ph.D., Melvin B. Heyman, M.D., Lisa Tracy

Why is it that so many infants eat anything, but then become fussy, difficult eaters as they get older? The problem is so widespread as to be considered normal. Almost everyone knows older children who refuse vegetables and fruit, are too picky, don't eat enough or eat too much, or want to snack instead of eating meals at regular times. Even families who appear to manage well are often cooking two dinners instead of one, or dining nightly on pasta or pizza.

One thing Mel and I have learned from our work over the last twenty years is that behavior problems over food are easier to prevent than to cure. But you need to start early. If your baby is between one day and two years old, there are surprisingly simple things you can do now to get feeding on the right track. If your child is older, the same techniques will also help eliminate established difficulties, although you'll need some patience and persistence.

With your help, your child can learn to:

  • Like healthy foods, and not prefer less healthy ones

  • Self-regulate-or be in control of-his own caloric intake to maintain a healthy weight

  • Be an adventurous eater who enjoys a wide range of foods

  • Be a contented eater, comfortable with family meals and family favorites

  • Eat an age-appropriate balance of meals and snacks

This chapter goes inside your child's head to explain why he thinks and behaves about food the way he does. You will then be ready to use the "smart strategies" detailed in Parts Two and Three to prevent common problems or fix them as they surface at each developmental age.

Who Needs Smart Strategies?

You've probably been told-as I was when I was pregnant-that infants left to their own devices will select an adequate diet. My well-meaning informant added that research studies had shown it. As it happens, that research was done seven decades ago, when much of the highly processed food of today didn't exist. Choices were fewer, to say the least. And while it is true that healthy children instinctively eat to satisfy their bodies' needs, there are two qualifiers:

  • Nature has been bypassed by technology. We're not living in a world where healthy choices are the only choices. Your child is going to encounter potato chips, candy, ice cream, and fast foods, all containing the calories and other nutrients that his body recognizes as food. But his body doesn't automatically distinguish between a deep-fried potato chip with calories and little else, and a vitamin-packed stir-fry with vegetables, oil, and perhaps some chicken. That part is up to you.

  • As we mentioned in Chapter 1, until quite recently in human history, the average man or woman lived to about forty years of age. Just about any food will keep us alive that long. What our bodies aren't equipped to do is automatically prefer the foods that will give us the best start in life and then keep us healthy for eighty> or a hundred years But those healthy preferences can be learned.

There's another theory you've probably heard: All parents have to do is provide healthy food at each meal, and children will eat that food if nothing else is available. Providing healthy food is certainly important but will not by itself create good eating habits. The army of parents who've tried the eat-it-or-leave-it approach and failed is testimony to the futility of the inevitable food standoffs. It's just too hard to be tough all the time. When your nine-month-old wants only milk and refuses solid food, you're not going to let him go hungry. When your two-year-old says she isn't hungry for dinner and then asks for ice cream, you may not feel good about leaving her crying over a plate of carrots.

In any case, these scenarios miss the real point. What you really want is for your children to like healthy foods. Being starved into submission doesn't accomplish that and will often have the opposite effect. Leaving it all to chance is no better. To help your child rise above the tide of bad food influences and actually enjoy the healthy foods you want him to eat, you need to use strategies-smart strategies based on understanding why your child thinks and behaves about food the way he does.

Building On Your Child S Instincts

Eight powerful instincts related to food and feeding surface at different times between birth and three years of age. Working with these instincts from your child's earliest days will make her introduction to the world of healthful food both simple and enjoyable. No single instinct will be effective for every feeding issue, of course, or will even work on every day of the week! But that's okay. You have eight at your disposal, and when one doesn't help, another will.

1. Your child's body has a say, too. From their first days of life, children instinctively seek control over their own lives.

Imagine that a friend is spoon-feeding you. She gives you a huge spoonful of strange food, and before you have even swallowed it, she is trying to push another huge spoonful into your mouth. When you start to re fuse, she attempts to push the spoon between your dosed lips. You 're revolted by the spoon and the food. Next mealtime, you decide you'd rather just skip it and stay hungry. Sounds grotesque ? Many infants are fed in just this way.

Our bodies are certainly fallible when it comes to food-which is why you need to shape your child's tastes. But in some respects, our children's bodies know exactly what they need from the earliest days. The most striking example is appetite. Strong metabolic signals from the brain ensure that a healthy child will never willingly go short of calories. Her body knows precisely how much it needs to eat to gain weight properly.

Trying to fight these metabolic signals by overencouraging a baby to take solid food when she isn't hungry, or by refusing to feed her when she is ravenous (perhaps because it isn't dinnertime yet), is wrong for three reasons. First, it teaches her to ignore the very signals she will need in the future to prevent overeating and obesity. Second, even infants seem instinctively to want to control what goes into their mouths. If we ignore these powerful feelings, we risk losing the fight and setting up more battles for the future. Finally, being forced to eat things she doesn't want is a scary experience for a child. The likely result is that she'll develop aversions to precisely the foods you want her to like, and will become generally conservative about trying new foods in the future.

Between twenty-one months and two years this instinct becomes even more apparent: Your child wants to be assertive and do it herself. Why does this happen? Nobody knows for sure, but it is probably linked to our human drive for independence and achievement. Although it may be hard to believe now, the child who drives you crazy by refusing to eat the things you most want her to like may rise to future greatness through the same behavior-channeled into, say, art, cooking, or politics.

Whatever the reason, two-year-olds feel compelled to defy their parents, and will do it with any tools they can find. If you let them know there are battles to be fought and won over food, they will be delighted to engage you! And while it is true that your child definitely needs to find something to defy you about, there are much easier and less harmful opportunities than tantrums over what is for lunch or whether candy is okay at the dinner table.

What you can do: Right from day one, accept a division of control, and learn age appropriate feeding skills. You, as an adult, are the only one who can make an informed choice about what foods are good to eat in general, and what particular foods are right for each meal and snack. Your child is the one with the biological signals that determine hunger, fullness, and whether a particular food looks and smells appealing. One key to growing a healthy eater, then, is to focus on getting healthy foods on the table that she can reasonably be expected to enjoy, and then-most important-letting your child feel in control of how much of those foods she eats.

As you get to know your infant, you will recognize that crying, fist chewing, and looking irritable are signs it ought to be lunchtime by now. Your older baby signals that she wants to continue eating by leaning forward, watching her bowl, and even opening her mouth for more when she has swallowed the last mouthful. As she starts to get full she will take smaller amounts off the spoon and will swallow more slowly. Finally she refuses to open her mouth, turns her head away, or lets the last spoonful dribble back out. Let her have the last say and you'll both be happier.

For a child of two to five years, loud demands for high-calorie snacks, irritability, or lethargy are all signs that the gas tank is low. When provided with food, she will start eating at a great rate, and her humor will usually improve as the food disappears. Conversely, some days she may not be hungry when a meal is ready, and picks at the pasta she usually likes. Maybe she is coming down with something, or perhaps she simply ate a larger afternoon snack than normal. Whatever the reason, give her a chance to change her mind while you eat your dinner, but don't insist she clean her plate or try to get her to eat "just a tiny piece" of chicken. Micromanaging can prompt future food refusals and fussiness at any age.



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