How do we sabotage our babies intuitive eating?

25 Apr

This post is based on my opinion.

The website defines intuitive eating:

The underlying premise of Intuitive Eating is that you will learn to respond to your inner body cues, because you were born with all the wisdom you need for eating intuitively. On the surface, this may sound simplistic, but it is rather complex.  This inner wisdom is often clouded by years of dieting and food myths that abound in the culture.  For example, “Eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full” may sound like basic common sense, but when you have a history of chronic dieting or of following rigid “healthy” rules about eating, it can be quite difficult. To be able to ultimately return to your inborn Intuitive Eater, a number of things need to be in place—most importantly, the ability to trust yourself!

Intuitive eating seems to be everywhere these days.  Mindfulness in general is gaining in popularity and it is only fitting that people bring that mindfulness to what, and how, they eat.  Proponents of eating intuitively consider this way of eating to be both normal and natural, a sort of “anti-diet”.  Others on the other side of the debate consider it another diet, another lifestyle change, and another way of eating to mitigate the amount of harm in one’s body.  Either way, being more mindful of when we eat and why we eat, is a sound idea for several reasons, both physical and emotional.

According the blogger Mary Claire at My Intuitive Eating Journey:

Think of a baby. They know when they’re hungry. They cry. We feed them…when they have had enough they turn away, or throw the food away. They won’t eat no matter how much you try to force it down their throats. They haven’t been brainwashed by society into thinking they need to eat less to be thin, or eat more to make someone happy (or because there are starving children somewhere).

Maria Von Trapp, who sang the immortal lines from “Do Re Mi” in the Sound of Music had the right of it.

“Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start. When we read we begin with ABC…”

To look at intuitive eating, we need to start at the very beginning.

With a baby.

As a mother, I am constantly reading and researching topics pertaining to children.  One thing I hear a lot of is that children today are significantly more overweight and showing markers for diabetes, heart disease, and arthritis at shockingly young ages, compared to only one generation ago.

This discussion could go on because there are so many factors contributing to childhood (and adult) obesity.

I am going to discuss infant feeding, and the role that it plays in this discussion, because it is so important to go right to the beginning in looking at this issue.

I want my children to be healthy and fit, and to have a healthy relationship with food.  I want them to trust in their own bodies and minds.  Through my years of research (AKA – being my kid’s mom), I have found several things that I believe will contribute to my children ultimately having a positive relationship to food.  I fail a lot, but I continue to try to achieve a healthy balance.

Mary Claire asserts that babies eat intuitively.

I agree.

Sort of.

1.  Breastfed babies eat intuitively.  In order to successfully get milk from the mother’s breast, the baby must latch on.  The process of latching and then sucking the milk takes effort.  Essentially, a breastfed baby must work for their food.  It is relatively easy for a nursing mother to know when baby is actively sucking for their food, or passively sucking for comfort.

Conversely, the bottlefed baby (be it breastmilk or formula in the bottle) does not exert the same effort.  Bottle nipples are free flowing, and though they come in varying sizes and flow rates, the method of getting milk from it  is the same.

2.  A breastfed baby controls their intake.  It is impossible to force a baby to latch onto the breast and actively suck, particularly when baby is not hungry. Babies may eat many, many times a day.  They may eat for an hour.  They may eat for 5 minutes every 1/2 hour.  They may be easily distracted and delatch to look around.

Here is the key – they are controlling their own intake.  Yes, it is hard and exhaustive for the mom, but it gets easier and it creates a much more positive relationship with food in later life.

The caregiver of a bottlefed baby controls the intake.  While the baby may turn their head or indicate that they are done, the caregiver may continue to feed the baby until the bottle is empty (in an effort not to waste the milk or in an attempt to “top the baby up”).

This early step of “force feeding”, immediately takes away the autonomy from the baby – they are no longer in control of their intake.  Furthermore, when feeding is “scheduled”, the baby does not eat according to their needs, but according to a time table designed by someone else.

3.  Breastmilk is designed so that the lower calorie, “thinner” or “more watery” “foremilk” is what comes first and the calorie and fat rich “hindmilk” comes later.  (Kellymom explains this much better than I do).  Generally, the baby gets satisfied off the foremilk and only has a small amount of hindmilk.

The calories are evenly distributed via bottlefeeding.

This small difference may play a larger role in later life.  This article (with citations, is quite interesting and explains things well).  It is important to take note of this though, because babies who are being exclusively breastfed are often told they are “too small” because the chart that they are being weighed against is a chart for babies who are fed formula.  Ensure that your baby is being measured by the WHO chart for breastfed babies and look at other cues such as growing in the positive direction on a curve, output and mood.

4.  Early introduction to solids can contribute to later problems with weight and lack of intuitively eating.  The guidelines for most major paediatric associations state to wait until the baby is at least six months old before introducing solid food into the diet.

5. Baby led weaning or baby led solids allows a baby to control their own food intake and choices.  If we want our kids to have a positive relationship with food, this can begin right when solid foods are introduced.  In the first year, solids are mainly for “testing” and tasting, not for sustenance.  The baby should be offered solid foods when they are interested and they should be allowed to feed themselves.  For someone who practices baby led solids,  scooping rice cereal into baby will not usually happen and instead baby will play with foods of soft textures in their hands and then eventually pick food up and eat it.  Additionally, breastmilk and formula should be offered before solid food, not after.

 The conclusions to a study published in the British Medical Journal 2012 states:

Weaning style impacts on food preferences and health in early childhood. Our results suggest that infants weaned through the baby-led approach learn to regulate their food intake in a manner, which leads to a lower BMI and a preference for healthy foods like carbohydrates. This has implications for combating the well-documented rise of obesity in contemporary societies.

6. Bottlefeeding after 12-18 months of age.  Babies who get milk from a bottle past the age of 12-18 months show an increased risk for later obesity.  A recent study published in the Journal of Pediatrics suggests  that parents tend to allow the child to use the bottle and walk around with it, and often use it as a behavioural technique, associating the food with comfort and feeding an emotional need.  Breastfeeding is not included in this as breastfeeding can meet an emotional need with limited increase in calories and children associate breastfeeding differently.

By nature, babies do eat intuitively, but, in the same way that we sabotage ourselves, we can sabotage our children’s ability to eat intuitively.

If a baby is bottlefed, be sure to feed on demand and, even if milk will be wasted, to stop when the baby indicates they are done.  Follow the cues of your baby and let them set their own feeding schedule (or not).  Rather than feeding a baby solids via a spoon, allow them to explore the food and feed themselves.

I look to my son as a sort of “test case” for this.  My son is a very intuitive eater.  Although he had a very minimal amount of formula after birth, he was cup fed and nursed exclusively following release from the hospital.  My son was not a huge eater of solid foods in his first year and we very much followed a baby led solids approach, although it was difficult for me to put aside preconceived notions of “right and wrong” with respect to feeding.  When I returned to work at twelve months, my son experimented more with solid food, but we reversed cycled at night with nursing – another sign that my son followed his own cues as to when he needed nutrients.  Yes, I was tired at times, but I believe that due to the small period in which our children are young, we need to set aside our own wants at times for their needs.  

My son is a small four year old, weight wise, but he is a mighty and healthy child, meeting and exceeding developmental milestones.  Watching him eat is a pleasure.  He eats slowly and methodically.  He goes through periods where his hunger is high and periods where he needs little.  He asks for a wide variety of food from sweets and chocolate to salmon and carrots.  He is not a perfect eater, but he developed, from an early age, the ability to eat intuitively, and I hope that he continues to have a positive relationship with food as he gets older.

5 Responses to “How do we sabotage our babies intuitive eating?”

  1. Mary Claire April 25, 2012 at 10:54 am #

    Thanks for linking to my post 🙂 Glad it inspired you. I see so many mothers stressing over how their children are ‘poor eaters’ regardless of their age and it saddens me. I know that it isn’t the children that are usually the problem, but the parents that don’t trust that their child can be in charge of their own bodies. And it’s not even really the parents’ fault..a lot of it goes back generations and they way we’ve been influenced by our parents, grandparents and societies. Even if babies are being bottle fed, or spoon fed, you need to let your child lead and tell you when they have had enough. They know!

    I managed to breastfeed about seven months, but then neither of us were enjoying it anymore, so we moved to the bottle. I never tried to force feed her, or feed her on a schedule, despite my mother and doctor trying to convince me I should. It just didn’t seem right to make her cry when I knew she was hungry! And I don’t stress about how much she eats. I provide healthy options most of the time, and sometimes she wants a cookie or chocolate. Big deal.

    To clarify about Intuitive Eating; it is okay to eat for emotional reasons sometimes. The problem is when it goes beyond the occasional family function or party, or boyfriend breakup, and is used as a coping mechanism to deal with the majority of your problems.

    Another issue that is related to children growing up unhealthy, with poor food relationships and body image issues, is that they aren’t usually taught how to deal with their emotions. They need to be taught that it’s okay to cry, to feel sad, scared, anxious etc. And they need to be taught or led to find their own ‘healthy’ coping mechanisms to deal with the strong emotions they can’t handle.

    For young babies, especially toddlers as I’m watching my daughter now… they don’t have the words to express how they feel. They seek comfort where they know it, and that was usually next to mom being breastfed or from a bottle. So they associate that with comfort. If they’re walking around not drinking the bottle, then it’s probably just become a ‘lovey’. I don’t know if they really associate it as food for comfort any more than if they had attached the same behaviour to a teddybear or blankie? I’m not sure..just a random thought right now…

    Or…it could just be they are hungry if they are drinking it and you’re not holding it in their mouth. Every time my daughter is upset and I offer her food, I think to myself…Oh no! I’m going to make her an emotional eater! And it is a fear of mine because I’m recovering from an eating disorder. But if she takes it from me, she usually eats it. Sometimes, she takes it and walks around with it, but she won’t actually eat it unless she’s hungry. It’s more likely to get thrown to the dog. We also usually leave a bowl of cheerios or cut up fruit in a bowl, and she ‘grazes’ throughout the day whenever she wants.

    I guess the point I’m trying to make is that I’m letting her decide if she wants to eat it or not. If she points to the cookie jar, I give her a cookie. Sometimes I may try to give her an apple first, sometimes she may take it, sometimes she really wants the cookie. And that’s okay because it’s not like all she eats are cookies all day.

    I think I’m rambling now.

    Anyhow, excellent post Jenn. I hope this hopes lets parents become less obsessed with what and how much their children are eating, and trust that their children intuitively know what’s best for themselves if we let them.

    FYI, my new website is up and running, but there is still some work for me to do. There will be a forum for Intuitive Eaters, and I am also working on setting up a monthly support group meeting for Intuitive Eaters or anyone who wants to learn more about Intuitive Eating in Vaughan, ON . If you’re interested in learning more, please sign up for the email list and I’ll be in touch,

  2. jexalt April 25, 2012 at 6:30 pm #

    Thanks for the really well thought out reply!

    I just want to address the weaning from the breast at seven months due to mom and baby not liking it any longer. I hope this information can be helpful to other people out there or for you if another bambina comes your way! 😉

    It can be incredibly frustrating for a mom when it appears that her baby is no longer interested or liking breastfeeding. The mom gets upset and breastfeeding seems useless and mom is tired of the constant struggle. More often than not, mom will check with her doctor who will usually suggest more solids and/or bottle feeding. The thing is, most doctors have little to no breastfeeding knowledge. Unless there is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) on staff, the mom leaves the doctor’s office thinking that her baby is weaning from the breast.

    Babies don’t dislike breastfeeding because they don’t know anything else. They also do not self wean prior the age of 12 months. More often than not, a baby who appears to not like to breastfeed is either not getting enough or is distracted. This common issue can be rectified and mothers can be assured that their babies DO like breastfeeding but that they need a bit of help from an IBCLC. For women going through issues like this, check with an IBCLC or the La Leche League.

    To address the issue of not getting enough, this is often the result of the introduction of bottles for whatever reason. Ideally, a baby will be exclusively breastfed for their first six months, but when bottles are introduced, it is important to watch for low supply cues and attempt to rectify them via using bottles less if possible or focusing on breastfeeding at what used to be “off peak” hours (ie at night).

    With my kids, when I returned to work, we went from regularly feeding during the day, to feeding when I picked them up in the late afternoon for several hours, and then feeding throughout the night and at drop off in the morning. Of course, this evolved after a few months, but it made that initial switch easier.

    For some people, they take a weekend, a few days, a week, get into bed, and nurse the baby and focus just on baby, dropping solid feeds and other things for that time. This will help re-establish a supply that is getting lower due to supply and demand issues.

    The other reason that babies may not seem to like breastfeeding is due to a baby being distracted. Being distracted while breastfeeding is actually somewhat of a “developmental” milestone ( According to Kellymom, the “big periods” are from 2-6 months and then from 8-10 months, with a high level at 4-5 months.

    Kellymom says it better than me on the distracting issues:

    “Many moms find it more and more difficult to nurse a distractible baby, and sometimes even interpret it personally (“I don’t want mom any more” or “I don’t want to nurse any more”). At the very least, it’s frustrating to deal with a distractible baby. Less frequent/shorter nursing during this distractible stage can lead to a low milk supply, so do your best to get in a few decent feedings during the day.

    Until this stage has passed, baby may need a quiet place to nurse and/or more night nursing until he’s figured out how to deal with distraction. Do take advantage of night nursing during this time – it doesn’t matter when baby takes in his calories during a 24-hour period. One study showed that older babies can consume as much as 25% of their total daily intake of mother’s milk during the night, probably partly because of daytime distractibility.

    Nursing in a quiet, darkened, boring room often helps. Talk in quiet, soothing tones (if you talk at all). Nurse while lying down; nap nurse. Cover baby with a shawl or put him in a sling to nurse. Nursing while in motion (walking, rocking) can also help baby to focus better on nursing. Try to catch your baby when he’s more willing, such as when he’s just waking up, already a little sleepy, or actually asleep. Baby’s initial pulling off is probably not an indication that he is finished – just an indication that he saw/heard something interesting across the room. When he pulls off, try to coax him back to the breast a few more times before giving up.

    If baby pulls away without letting go, keep a finger ready to break the suction as soon as he starts to pull away. You can also nurse baby in the football (clutch) hold so you have better control of his head, or nurse him in the cradle hold in a sling. This type of behavior sometimes leads to biting; if your baby bites, see When Baby Bites.

    If baby is not nursing as much because of distractibility, offer the breast often (even when he doesn’t “ask” to nurse). Make up for lost time by nursing more often during the night. Older babies may nurse better if you try different and novel nursing positions in which they have more control – baby standing up, sitting on your lap facing you, etc.”

    I hope that this information is useful to people out there struggling with issues of supply and distracted babies and can help people salvage some breastfeeding relationships.

    It is really unfortunate that doctors are not better educated on this topic so that more women can have accurate information and help to make an informed decision. It really upsets me that this information is not widespread and readily available.

  3. Mary Claire April 25, 2012 at 9:55 pm #

    That is really helpful and useful information and I hope it helps other new moms that may be struggling and are able to work through those issues.

    Unfortunately for me, I was not able to stick to breastfeeding, and perhaps, I took the easier way out. But I had to. I was not getting any sleep between teething and her grazing 24 hours a day and she was not getting what she needed and we ended up with supply and demand issues that I did not have the capacity to rectify, even knowing the information above at the time. On top of postpartum depression, I was dealing with severe emotional issues related to my eating disorder. I still don’t know how I managed to hold it together as long as I did. It was in my daughter’s best interest that I find a way to deal with everything that did not drive me completely over the edge, because ultimately I was responsible for her. For me, that meant switching to the bottle so that I could grasp a little bit of sanity…at least for a few more months. I know that if I had been capable of building up my supply to meet her needs, or taking a whole weekend or week to just nurse, it would have been great. But realistically, that was not an option, for me, at that time, in my circumstances. My doctor didn’t force me into it, and I nursed as long and as much as I could for as long as I could (I think we were closer to 9 months by the time we weaned completely). My daughter was eager to eat solids, and I never forced a bottle on her.

    I am completely FOR breastfeeding and love that you are such a great resource and advocate for it. But I also believe that everyone needs to do what is right for them and their situation. In my case, my mental health was more important than continuing breastfeeding. And in turn, my ending breastfeeding played on my mental health anyhow because for a long time I felt like a horrible mother for not having had the strength to nurse for longer, and start solids later, or hold her skin to skin for longer, or carry her more, or going way back to the beginning, for not having been able to have the birth I wanted and therefore not being able to hold her until about 10 hours after she was born.

    At the end of the day, all that matters is that we love our children, show them our love, let them grow and be there for them as best as we can.

  4. jexalt April 26, 2012 at 9:11 am #

    I think it is important that we, as humans and mothers and parents, not take things personally or beat ourselves up about things that are not within our control at the time. All we can really do is learn new things and move forward.

    One day, I strongly hope, that society will look differently at the role of the mother, and all that is involved, and really look after that person in the best way possible. A way that helps mothers with PPMD from the beginning and helps nurture and support bfing relationships for the entire first year.

    Apparently, the best and safest family car on the market is a super expensive, not the easiest to get car. I don’t have that car. It doesn’t in any way mean that car safety isn’t important to me. I can only do what I can do with what the information and the ability that I have at any given moment in time.

    Additionally, when Alex was born, nine years ago, I was told that babies needed to be 34 weeks plus to be able to breastfeed. I now know that that is incorrect, but what was I to do at the time? I pumped and she was tube and bottle fed until she latched. When TJ was born, they forced me to give him formula due to his low blood sugar because he was “close to death” despite latching and being alert. I didn’t have the fight in me and I now know that this was not what had to happen. There was no one there advocating for me but me and I could barely move and all I wanted to do was go home.

    As far as c-sections, those happened as well. I would LOVE to say that I had natural births that were simple. I didn’t. But what I had was what I had, and it can’t be changed. I didn’t see or touch Alex for around 48 hours after she was born although Dave showed me a polaroid (lol – remember those). I can’t go back, I can only go forward, which is all any of us can do.

    Mary, you can’t change what happened no matter how many times you explain it, and that is ok. Whether or not people believe you doesn’t matter either. You know what you did, and that’s awesome and good and you have a lovely little girl who is very happy.

    My only hope is that someone who reads this can gain some information they may not have already had.

    • Mary Claire April 26, 2012 at 9:19 am #

      lol! Polaroids! Wow! So much has happened in the past decade!
      😉 xo

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