Introducing solids to baby - How to create a positive relationship with food
Having a positive relationship with food is something few parents would argue with for their child. Enjoying food, eating what they need, and not worrying about restriction or punishment. Sounds idyllic, no?
A few weeks ago I spoke at the first Bristol Mum's Health Summit on exactly this topic - when introducing solids to your baby, what steps can you take to create that positive relationship with food?
I chose this topic because ultimately, every parent’s goal is for their child to eat well and love food, to grow up healthy and with a positive relationship with eating and their own body. This is even more true if we, as parents, are coming from a place of not loving our own bodies, or having a turbulent relationship with eating. We might want even more to get everything right for our child.
We’re also surrounded by more nutrition information and advice than ever before – it’s across the books we read, the podcasts we listen to, all social media, we have advice from friends and family in the palm of our hands all day and night.
And the result is that we are left feeling even more overwhelmed and under pressure to get things right. Because if we can’t do it with all this support around us, then we must be failing!
I feel this too. It's impossible to live up to the perfect ideal that is created online. And even if you could serve the 'right' foods everyday, there's no guarantee your child will eat them anyway.
So I don’t like to talk about what to feed your child, because quite honestly, it doesn’t really matter that much.
Instead, I think if you focus on 4 key areas when you introduce solids, then you stand a pretty good job of setting your child up with a positive relationship with food.
#1 – trust your child’s appetite
This applies from babies, right through to teenagers. We are born with the ability to self-regulate.
If a newborn cries for milk, we give it, we don’t question whether it’s too early / late / inconvenient. They cry when they’re hungry, and they stop taking milk when they are full. Newborn babies are driven by this innate feeling and need for food. Older babies and toddlers are the same.
The challenge for us as parents is that this appetite fluctuates daily, and so we can get used to expecting a certain amount of food to be eaten for breakfast, and when this differs it leads us panic. What if they get hungry again in half an hour? What if they aren't getting enough iron? That wasn't the right size to count as a portion of fruit!! Those thoughts can spiral quickly.
In order to create a positive relationship with food, we need to take a step back and understand what's normal for babies and toddlers appetites.
(It's actually normal for us as adults too, but we've often learnt to ignore this fact.)
Appetite can fluctuate due to tiredness, growth spurts, illness, constipation, big changes like moving house or a new sibling – pretty much all things that toddlers will experience frequently. So one day they will eat 3 slices of toast without pausing, and the next be satisfied after half a slice.
The other challenge is babies and toddlers just aren’t as articulate as we’d like. BUT they do have very clear signs that they are full – throwing food, pushing you away, refusing to sit and eat, crying are all clear signals that they do not need to be eating.
One thing I can guarantee is that children will not eat the exact same amounts every day.
#2 – create a positive mealtime environment
Children and babies do not eat well under stress and pressure. You only need to watch I'm a Celebrity to see that this is true for adults as well.
Pressure to eat can look like pushing them to eat more or try new foods, or to stop playing, but it can also be pressure in the form of praising them for every mouthful or dictating the order in which foods are eaten. With small babies it could look like you standing over them in their high chair, spoon in hand, hovering to put that next bite into their mouth.
A mealtime in which people are coming and going from the table, or the tv is on in the background can make it really difficult for a child to eat well. As can people sitting in silence and the air filled with tension and anger.
A positive experience of eating is fundamental to a positive relationship with food.
Stop for a minute to think about you what you want mealtimes to be like. What sounds are there? What can you see? Who can you see? What is the table setting like?
It might be calm and relaxed, the people you love together, talking about life, sharing food. The chair would be comfortable and supportive, allowing you to reach your food easily and converse with others. You want to have cutlery that fits your hands and is easy to use, that doesn't leave you struggling to scoop up peas or that feels uncomfortable in your mouth.
Think about how you want to experience the food. You want to be able to pause to drink at your leisure, to be able to take the amount of food you want and try things at your own pace. You might want to serve yourself, and be allowed to avoid the options that don't take your fancy right now. To be in control of the amount of sauce.
All of these things help a child feel calm and able to eat well too.
Not every mealtime will look like your ideal, but take a step back to look at where you are asking your child to eat, and see if there are ways to make it more positive for eating in. If they are old enough, you could also get them involved in what that means.
#3 – avoid using food a a reward or punishment
We all remember this one from our own childhood.
No you can’t have that ice cream until you’ve eaten your dinner.
Just 2 more mouthfuls and then you can get down from the table.
If you don’t clean your room then no chocolate from the shop.
It can feel really tempting to use food as a reward to get your child to complete a task, or to withhold food as a punishment for their behaviour.
The problem is that in the long run, it just doesn’t work.
And yes there will always be people that say it does – and nothing is clear cut with nutrition, so maybe you’ve managed to navigate using this technique without any backlash.
But in the majority, this type of approach increases the desire for those ‘treat’ foods and makes us want them even more.
It puts them up on a pedestal of something to aspire to, to lie and cheat our way to get, to binge on when we finally get the free access to this food that we’ve been craving.
And in return it reinforces the idea that some foods are just terrible, and they need to be suffered to get the tasty treat at the end.
If this happened to you as a child, for example with the sprouts at Christmas, has it made you love sprouts now? Or will you forever associate them with that feeling of dread, the thing that ruined Christmas dinner.
Perhaps sweet foods were withheld and used as treats and you now find that you can't 'trust' yourself around these things. You might find yourself saying 'no, I just can't have them in the house or I'll eat them all'.
That's not a lack of willpower. That's the result of restriction. It's indicative of not having a positive relationship with food. And you can break that cycle for your child.
#4 – role model the positive relationship with food that you want them to have.
This is the one that can really take some time for you, and your partner, to explore for yourselves. Do you have a positive relationship with food? Is it something that you are able to role model to your child?
At its most basic, it is about eating the foods you want your children to have – why would they eat broccoli if they never see you eat it?
When I used to run parent and toddler cooking sessions I once asked a parent to leave the room if they couldn’t use neutral language about tinned fish. They protested, said it was disgusting and smelt horrible, started pulling faces and saying there was no way their child would eat it. Reluctantly they kept silent in the background. This child of course, happily ate the fishcakes we made.
It's why Baby Led Weaning can be such a great approach, as it really encourages you to think about what you are serving to the family as a whole.
But it’s more than just eating the same foods.
It’s about your attitude to food and eating, and the words you use to describe your body. Many of us will remember mums, aunties, grandmas being on some sort of diet back in the 80’s and 90’s – we were served our family food, but then mum was not having part of it, or refused the cake at a party. Or did eat the cake and then said how terrible she was for doing so.
All of these things are picked up on by our children from a very young age, and they shape how our children will relate to their bodies and in turn to how they experience food.
If you’ve had a lifetime of hearing these messages yourself, and struggled with your own relationship with food, then it’s going to take some time to fix that. It will be hard. I'm a huge advocate for starting this work in pregnancy, or at least before you start introducing solids to your baby. And I am here to support you when it gets tough.
Focusing on developing a positive relationship with food is a brilliant goal to have when you start weaning and feeding your child. It's an ongoing process, that can be difficult, but ultimately really rewarding.
We talk about this in the weaning workshop that I run online, and you are very welcome to join us if you are at the starting of your weaning journey. You can reserve your place here.
If you've already started weaning, or have come up against a few stumbling blocks with your toddler, then I am here to help you find your way again. Whether it's spending some time together working out what's normal, or putting a plan in place for how to create the positive mealtimes you dream of, I will work with you to make it happen.
Take a look at the ways we can work together here, and get in touch to find out more.