Diets for babies, part 2: A better alternative

The Pediatric Insider

© 2011 Roy Benaroch, MD

Part 1 and part 2 of this article originally appeared on WebMD.com, as a response to this somewhat nauseating story.

Dieting is a terrible idea for everyone—everyone, that is, who’s trying to reach or maintain a healthy weight. It’s especially a bad idea for babies, because it interferes with the most important, fundamental skill that babies need in order to keep a healthy weight throughout their lives.

Ready for the secret to a lifetime of no-dieting, eating enjoyment, and keeping a healthy weight?

The Hungry Rule: Eat when you’re hungry. Don’t eat when you’re not.

It’s simple enough, and in fact every human baby is born with this wonderful skill. But dieting short-circuits the mechanism, leading to food cravings and stress and a distorted view of what and when one ought to eat. Instead of dieting, families should do everything they can to reinforce “the hungry rule.”

Start by breastfeeding. A mother and her baby follow cues from each other about how much milk to supply and when to eat. Bottlefeeding is just guesswork—guess how much your baby can eat, guess how often, and guess when she’s done.

Though feeding is one way to soothe a fussy baby, it isn’t the only way—parents need to be taught other soothing skills besides the bottle or breast, so that babies can learn to soothe themselves without eating.

Introduce appropriate solids between 4-6 months, and allow your baby to decide how much to eat at every meal. Is he turning away? The meal is over. Parents can never know better than their baby when he is full. Bottle or breast-fed babies often start to wean themselves by 9 months or so, as they become more interested in exploring. They’re pulling away? Put them down, the meal is over.

Quickly move towards a family-style meal, including soft table foods that a baby can feed herself at nine months. Set a good example by eating slowly, drinking water, and talking and laughing during enjoyable meals. Don’t chide each other about how much or how little anyone is eating. Provide healthy choices, mostly plant-based, and then allow your baby to decide how much to eat (or even whether or not to eat certain dishes at all.)

Keep sugary drinks out of the house. Juice is no better than soda. However, don’t make any foods forbidden—that just makes them more desirable. Sure, Junior can have juice when he’s at a friend’s birthday party.

Don’t be in any hurry to start “fast food.” The marketing of these products is pervasive and effective—more toddlers recognize “The Golden Arches” than just about any other trademark. McBurgWendfil-a would love to get your child hooked early, and hooked often. Sometimes you’ll be busy, but the fast food “Unhappy Meal” ought to be avoided when your kids are young. Remember: eating is something to do when you’re hungry—not something to do because you get a cool toy or get to go to the restaurant that looks so special on TV.

Diets seem appealing because they promise success, but they’re not going to help you or help your baby. Effective ways of raising a child with a healthy attitude about food always reinforce “The Hunger Rule”—only the child can decide if he’s hungry, so only the child can decide how much to eat. Parents who try to control their child’s appetite and intake from a very early age may deprive their children of the nutrition they need while increasing their risk of obesity. Dieting is no good for anyone, and an especially bad idea for babies.

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3 Comments on “Diets for babies, part 2: A better alternative”


  1. Thanks for the thoughtprovoking piece! A question – why introduce solids at 4-6 months?

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  2. Dr. Roy Says:

    Jeanette, the exact timing of introducing solids is probably not that crucial, but 4-6 months seems reasonable for several reasons:

    By 4-6 months, birth storage of iron is becoming depleted, and babies who nurse exclusively past 4-6 months without complementary iron-rich foods will become iron deficient. Human breast milk is a poor source of iron.

    Most 4-6 month olds are developmentally ready– and even eager– to take complementary foods off of a spoon. Their natural attitude towards new things and people is a big smile. By about 7 months of age, many normal babies start to become wary or leery of new experiences. A 7 m/o baby who has never taken from a spoon is less likely to quickly accept the new feeding method than a 4-6 month old.

    Many cultures across the globe start feeding their babies complementary foods earlier that 4 months, including legumes, meats, and cereals.

    If parents do want to delay solids past 6 months, an iron supplement is essential. And delaying far past 6 months is ill-advised, as it deprives babies of an important developmental skill that can be easily learned earlier.

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  3. Shannon Says:

    Dr. Roy,

    For breastfeeding terminology accuracy, weaning begins when solids are introduced (4-6 months), however, it is extraordinarily rare of babies to fully wean themselves before the age of one and breastmilk (or formula) should still be the primary source of food for the first year, i.e. nurse or bottle-feed before each solids feeding. This is the general recommendation of lactation consultants. Nursing “strikes” may occur prior to one year because of a baby’s desire to explore, but typically this is not an indication of full out weaning even though mothers often take this a cue to wean from the breast. These “strikes” typically only last a few days to a week at most but can re-occur. However, if you switch from breast to bottle, then weaning was unnecessary because you’re still providing formula as the primary source of food. There are many lactation consultants who will argue that babies do not naturally wean before the age of two, although, my son definitely weaned at 22 months, and I was persistent to try to keep going till 24 months so I’m not sure that’s a fully valid argument. Although, I had to “cut-off” my daughter at 3 years so I do believe it just depends on the child. I just wanted to make sure that when you say “wean” that doesn’t mean it’s not atypical for babies to wean fully from the breast at 9 months, especially, because cow milk is not recommended to be introduced for another three months. I don’t want mothers to read this and think, “Oh, my baby is refusing to nurse, he/she must be weaning,” and then prematurely stop their nursing relationship with their baby. Most of my comments are based on information passed around on a breast-feeding list-serve I’ve been apart of for over four years (through the CDC) as well as from personal experience (over 40 months of consecutive nursing including through a full pregnancy and tandem nursing within the 40 months for a period of 18 months).

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