Tips: Listening to your internal cues of hunger and fullness

When babies are born they are extremely attuned to their internal signals of hunger and fullness. When they are hungry they know, and they will let you know too! They also know when they are full, and they stop eating. This ability is so fine-tuned that – if left to determine their own intake – they will eat to within a few calories of their energy intake from the previous day.

Baby learning how to eat solid foods

The transition to solid food is a particularly tricky time, because this tends to be when well-intentioned adults step-in and begin doing the feeding. This happens for various reasons: kids are messy when they’re learning to eat and parents don’t want to spend time cleaning; parents think their kids don’t know how to eat (more specifically, how to feed themselves); or because care-givers have an expectation about how much their kids should be eating and want to retain control over that amount.

Spoon feeding your child can override their signals of hunger or fullness

But whatever the reason, the result is often the same: kids stop listening to their own internal signals and start paying attention to what everyone else is telling them. Why should you care about this? Because research tells us that overriding these signals can lead to overeating and eating in the absence of hunger, both of which are associated with adverse health outcomes. Furthermore, relearning to hear these internal signals takes a lot of patience and hard work.

Instead, promoting autonomy, independence, and self-governance through self-feeding has been linked with a range of positive outcomes, especially in later childhood and adolescence. Giving control over eating back to baby – as opposed to mom or dad – has also been shown to result in lower levels of restriction, pressure to eat, monitoring, and concern over baby’s weight by parents, which are feeding styles associated with higher weight, fussiness, a lack of food acceptance, and even lowered nutrient intake.

Try self feeding instead

Feeding your baby this way also shifts the focus from emphasizing the quantity of food consumed to experiencing and expanding the diet. The goal becomes introducing babies to a range of flavors and textures rather than ensuring that certain levels of various nutrients are consumed.

So how can you support your little ones to listen to their internal hunger cues? Here are some ideas:

  • Listen to them. Many of us are in the habit of eating because it’s time to: “It’s noon, guess I should have lunch”. Let your kids tell you when they are hungry, and listen to them when they do tell you. This doesn’t mean that they can eat whenever or whatever they want. And it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to – or that it’s not necessary to – get your kids on some kind of regular routine. But it does mean that if you have had a late morning snack because you’ve been at the children’s museum and they aren’t hungry for lunch at 12:00, wait a little longer until they are hungry.
  • Let them experience hunger. This might be one of the hardest things for modern parents to do. How many of you carry extra snacks all the time in the event that our kids have the slightest hint of hunger pains? But it’s good to experience hunger, of for no other reason than we can clearly identify what that feeling feels like. If possible, stop your kids from eating 30 minutes before a meal. When they do come to the table, use the “Ask questions, give direction” tip to talk about what they are feeling and help give them language to describe those feelings. (NOTE: Please note that I am not advocating long-term food deprivation or suggesting that food insecurity is a good thing. Food insecurity is a serious problem for many families and just as detrimental to long-term health as overeating. When I describe letting your kids be hungry, I mean letting their bodies have time to fully digest food before eating again: I mean leaving a few hours between meals.)
  • Ask questions, give direction. Talk to your kids about how their stomach feels. Help them visualize what a full and empty stomach feels like, and use this to identify how hungry they are. The more you do it, the better they will get and the more confident you can feel in what they are telling you.
  • Turn over control. Let your kids feed themselves. It might be messy, it might take a long time (longer than you’d like) for them to finish, but it’s one of the most important things you can do to ensure that they are eating when hungry and stopping when full (especially when combined with a lot of conversation).
  • Involve them in decisions. I have written before (see here and here) about why I think it’s important to let kids have a say in what they eat. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I think it’s extremely important than you let your kids have a say in deciding what they eat! Again, this doesn’t mean cookies for every meal is acceptable. But it does mean that you can give them a few choices (adjust how many and how often according to their age – older kids can take a more active role more often) that you are comfortable with, and let them decide. Practice, as they say, makes perfect. Alternatively, have a system that involves them in the planning and then stick to that plan. (Although, know that it is okay to veer off of it every once in a while: flexibility has its own virtues!)

Kiyah J. Duffey, PhD

Kiyah Duffey received her degree in Nutritional Epidemiology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is now Director of Global Scientific Affairs and LA Sutherland Group. She is also a freelance nutrition consultant, blogger, and mother to three. In her day job, Kiyah’s research aims to understand the association between diet, obesity and heart disease. She is the author of numerous scientific articles on these topics, and her work has been featured in Men’s Health Magazine, USA Today, and the BBC News and on NPR’s Morning Edition, Good Morning America, and the NBC Nightly News. But her true passion is food: reading and writing about it, shopping for it, talking about it, cooking it and sharing it with others. Someday she’ll figure out how to marry her passion and expertise more fully; in the meantime you can follow her efforts to do so at www.ourregularlyscheduledprogram.com where she blogs about family, parenting, career, and the search for a healthy, balanced life. Or connect with her via facebook or Twitter.