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Healthy habits that last a lifetime: How to practice responsive feeding | NIH MedlinePlus Magazine

Feeding time can be hard for new parents, especially since babies can’t use words to tell you when they’re hungry and when they’re full. Luckily, they use nonverbal signs and cues to communicate when they need to eat and when they’ve had enough. It’s important for parents to recognize these signs and respond to them quickly, warmly, and consistently―a strategy that’s called “responsive feeding.”

Healthy eating habits that last a lifetime

Practicing responsive feeding when your child is a baby teaches positive eating habits and skills that keep them healthy as they get older. That’s because responsive feeding teaches children to:

  • Recognize when their bodies are hungry and when they’re full (and to trust those feelings).
  • Clearly communicate their needs to others.
  • Eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full (instead of when someone tells them to).

How to practice responsive feeding with your child

Learn to recognize when your child is hungry and when they are full. Babies need to eat when they are hungry, but they shouldn’t eat more than they need. Watch your baby carefully for signs that they are ready to eat and signs that they are full. 

Signs your baby may be hungry include:

  • Opening and closing their mouth, moving their hands to their mouth, or putting things in their mouth.
  • Making sucking noises.
  • Putting their hands on their belly.
  • “Rooting” (opening the mouth and turning to look for food).

Signs your baby may be full include

  • Starting and stopping feeding often.
  • Slowing down or falling asleep while feeding.
  • Closing their mouth or turning away from food.
  • Spitting food out, pushing it away, or ignoring it. 

Fussiness and crying don’t always mean your baby is hungry. Babies cry for many reasons―for example, when they are tired, uncomfortable, teething, or cold. A baby who is crying because they’re hungry usually shows some other signs of hunger first.  

Respond quickly and appropriately. Respond right away when your baby shows signs of hunger and fullness. Acknowledge your baby’s cues and attend to them promptly and warmly. 

Do:

  • Start feeding when your baby shows signs of hunger.
  • Make sure your baby is comfortable and remove distractions (turn off the TV, put away your phone) so you can both focus on feeding.
  • Use eye contact and touch to engage with your baby during feeding. 
  • Let them stop eating when they show signs of being full.

Don’t

  • Ignore your baby’s cues.
  • Force your baby to eat after they are full.
  • Give your baby food to make them stop crying if they haven’t showed other hunger cues.

Be predictable. Establish a consistent schedule, structure, and routine for meals and snacks. This will help your baby know what to expect. 

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