4 strategies to help kids listen to their hunger cues

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. 

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 deal with the mess; 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.

But whatever the reason, the result is often the same:  kids stop listening to their own 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 (not listening to those internal cues of hunger and satiety) can lead to overeating and eating in the absence of hunger. And, relearning to hear these messages takes a lot of patience and hard work. Personally, I often mistake thirst for hunger, and end up eating…then feeling unsatisfied…because what I really needed was a drink. Even knowing this about myself, it remains a tough message for me to hear.

This is where something like Baby Led Weaning (BLW) has an advantage. BLW promotes autonomy – independence and self-governance – which, especially in later childhood and adolescence, has been linked with a range of positive outcomes. 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. (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’s what we do:

  • 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. 
  • 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, and talk about your own experience, the more you help them give you accurate information.  
  • Turn over control. Let your kids feed themselves. It might be messy, it might take a long time (longer than you’d like), but it’s one of the most important things you can do to ensure that they are eating when hungry and stopping when full.  
  • 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.)

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