Good food eating habits in babies and toddlers
Is your child an overeater…
We’ve all come across fussy eaters, but should you be concerned if your little one eats… and eats and eats? TRACEY LATTIMORE helps you spot the signs of overeating and tells you how you can create good habits.
Many parents struggle with getting their little ones to eat a varied diet, especially when they’re first introduced to food. Paediatric dieticians across the land are primed with good ideas and techniques for making toddlers eat healthily and happily, but what’s not quite so common is for babies and toddlers to overeat.
Dr Gillian Harris, consultant paediatric clinical psychologist and expert at the Infant & Toddler Forum (www.infantandtoddlerforum.org), believes that while some children become overweight because their parents prompt them to finish up food and give them bigger portions than they need, other children are naturally what she calls ‘plate clearers’.
“Most children are fussy eaters at around the age of two, but some children will eat more than others and always finish what’s on their plate,” she says. “I’ve also seen it in babies, where they will feed until there’s nothing left rather than stop when they are full. Children normally regulate their food intake internally until about the age of three or four, but some just don’t.”
Judy More, paediatric dietitian and expert at the Infant & Toddler Forum, agrees. “Most toddlers will regulate their food requirements quite well, but there are some who don’t have that in-built regulation and, if they like food, they may overeat. The stomach stretches when you eat, and then it usually feeds back to the brain that you have had enough. But, with some children, that regulation is just not there. We think it’s genetically linked, and some children will become obese because of it. It’s a problem that needs to be addressed.”
The characteristics seen in some obese children are that they eat quickly and more than a suitable portion size for their age, says Judy. If they are weighed as babies, they may cross upwards on the weight centile chart in the first year – that’s a sign that either they aren’t regulating their appetite well or they are being overfed. “This needs to be addressed, as childhood obesity is not a desirable outcome for any child,” adds Judy.
But what, and how, a child eats is also important. Sian Porter, consultant dietitian to Weetabix, says that toddlers’ tummies are only about one-third the size of an adult’s, so every spoonful counts when it comes to nutrition quality.
“It’s important not to fill them up before they’ve eaten all of the essential nutrients they need or fill them up with poor quality calories,” she says. “Feeding should be appetite-led. You should always offer child-size portions, allowing for seconds if wanted rather than one large one to start with. Don’t make young children finish everything on the plate or eat more than they wish to.”
Snacking and sweet treats are also an issue, but not in the way you might expect. Dr Harris advocates giving your child a piece of chocolate or a few sweets on a daily basis to normalise it. “If you restrict something like sweets, or use them as a reward, it makes them more desirable and this can go on to create a weight problem as your child will associate sweets with comfort.”
With a ‘plate clearer’, Dr Harris advises giving them a few chocolates or sweets throughout the day. Don’t have a treat tin or give your child a sweet to reward him for eating his vegetables, for instance, as this can lead them into thinking that the reward is more desirable.
So how do you know when your little hungry horse really has had enough?
- Limit the portion sizes slightly – if you give your child a bigger portion, he will probably eat it. Then follow a meal with fruit rather than something like a fromage frais, as these can be high in calories.
- Teach your child to eat what’s on his plate, not what’s on someone else’s.
- If he still wants more, you could give him something like an apple, which takes a long time to eat yet is high in fibre to fill him up. Giving your child a glass of water before a meal is also a good idea, suggests Dr Harris, as it will fill his tummy slightly.
- It’s important to have a routine, with three meals and two snacks per day, says Judy. Make it clear that your child only eats at those times, and say ‘no’ when he asks for more. Make it up to him by playing with him instead as, by saying ‘no’ to food, you are effectively taking pleasure away from him; you have to replace it with something else.
- Before you concern yourself with your little one’s eating habits, take him to your GP and get him professionally weighed and his length measured. This will be plotted on a centile graph so that you can see where your child is. If his weight is above his length by more than a centile, then it’s time to adjust his eating patterns.
Renée Elliott, author of The Top 100 Recipes for Babies and Toddlers (€8.99, Duncan Baird Publishers), says that a good rule of thumb is to divide your toddler’s plate as follows:
- One-third fruit (for breakfast) or vegetables (for lunch and dinner), baked, grilled, raw or steamed, using as many colours as possible.
- One-third wholegrains such as porridge, bread, pizza, pasta or rice.
- One-third protein such as meat or fish, beans, cheese or tofu, plus some seed or nut oils.
maternity & infant