Praise & rewards - are we really teaching babies to eat well?

“Finish your dinner and you can have pudding”

“Just one more spoon left to go”

“Try this broccoli and then you can have ice cream”

“Eat up, that’s a good girl”

“Well done for finishing all of your dinner”



Common parlance around dinner tables everywhere, and no doubt something you remember from your own childhood. You want your baby to grow well and to be healthy- that comes from eating nourishing food and plenty of it, right?


Well yes and no. Language around food and how we exert pressure on our children to eat has a far bigger impact on their long term health and their relationship with food than if they finish that plate in front of them.


Pressure to eat isn’t necessarily forcing a spoon of food into a babies mouth. It’s more subtle. It can be how we use language to encourage eating ‘just one more spoon’, how we enthuse about some foods more than others or how we react positively when they have finished everything on their plate.



Putting pressure on a baby to finish all the food in their bowl encourages them to override their internal cues telling them that they are full. It teaches them to associate being overly full with happiness. It might work in the short term, because your baby enjoys seeing you happy, but we know that in the long run in can backfire, leaving us with little room for manoeuvre. This is especially true if you reward eating one food with another, and can even affect how much a child likes that food and cause aversions to other previously liked foods.


Think back to if you were forced to eat anything as a child, and how it made you feel to not be able to leave the table until you’d eaten it. How do you feel about not finishing your plate now? Are there foods you don’t enjoy eating as an adult because of it?


You might think that a 7 month old baby is too young to understand the words you are saying around eating, but they know their own internal cues. The Division of Responsibility is a really helpful tool to remember in that moment at the dinner table when you feel frustrated that your baby isn’t eating. Your baby knows when they have had enough and it isn’t your job to make them eat everything.




Some tips to consider:

- Ideally, conversations about food should be neutral, but it can be really difficult to not praise or encourage eating. Instead think about encouraging food through role modelling and familiarity - your baby learns through watching you eat and interact with food, so show them!

- If your baby start to refuse food, take it away and move on, but don’t make something new. Talk to them about what’s happening and acknowledge that they might be full right now, and they will have an opportunity to eat again at the next meal / milk feed.


- Be patient and calm. Your baby is not intentionally refusing food to try to control you or make you angry, so don’t respond negatively to them when they do.

Don’t be discouraged if at one meal time you praise or encourage your baby to eat more. If this way of thinking about food is new to you, then it will take time and practice.


There are lots of resources out there to support you in adopting this way of approaching eating with your child. I can highly recommend the online course Raising Intuitive Eaters, from the London Centre for Intuitive Eating, or for free resources have a look at the links below.



Good eating habits start from weaning, so if you're about to introduce food to your baby, why not join my online weaning workshop and increase your confidence in building healthy eating habits. You can sign up here. Or if you've been struggling to manage food refusal and meal times with your baby, send me an email and we can come up with an approach that works for your family.



Extra reading

https://sarahockwell-smith.com/2018/04/07/why-you-should-never-praise-or-reward-a-child-for-eating/

https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/how-to-feed/childhood-feeding-problems/

https://www.parents.com/recipes/scoop-on-food/how-to-raise-intuitive-eaters-and-why-thats-so-important/

http://www.laurathomasphd.co.uk/podcast/ep67-raise-intuitive-eater-w-catherine-lippe-lippe-nutrition/