Babies know when they’re hungry

The Pediatric Insider

© 2012 Roy Benaroch, MD

There seem to be two styles of baby-feeding: scheduled versus on-demand. Strict schedulists stress that babies need regularity, and that parents know best what and when and how much their babies ought to eat. In the opposite corner are the on-demand feeders, sometimes thought of as a bit more Earthy-crunchy, the hippie tie-dye, anything-goes crowd. Who’s right?

If preventing obesity is your goal, here’s one more point for the hippies.

A recent study from 2011 presented inAustralia looked at about 300 babies, comparing those fed on-demand to those who were strictly scheduled. The scheduled babies weighed more, on average, at 14 months of age. We know from a good body of prior research that overweight toddlers are much more likely to become overweight children and overweight adults, so that weight difference at 14 months does have important predictive powers.

The results, to me, make sense. An ongoing struggle I have with counseling families trying to control weight is to stress the simple concept: Eat when you’re hungry, but stop eating when you’re not hungry. Unfortunately, many of us eat for too many reasons. We’re bored, we’re upset, we’re anxious, we’ve been taught we need to clean our plates. It is crucial, even from a very early age, to allow babies to develop their own, internal sense of appetite, and to develop the ability to decide themselves how much to eat. After all, it’s the baby himself how knows if he’s hungry, or how hungry he is.

Efforts to over-schedule meals and intake prevent this normal development of a child’s internal hunger-meter. If mom and dad are the ones deciding when and how much to eat, Junior may just eat whatever’s put in front of him, hungry or not.

That’s not to say there are no benefits to scheduling. Schedules help babies sleep at more regular intervals, including through the night. And schedules are essential for working families, who need to get their babies where they need to be, fed, at a certain time. Some sort of schedule is certainly a good idea, at least for the timing of meals.

But at mealtimes, it really is best—from a very young age—to allow babies to decide how long to nurse, or how much to take from the bottle. Try not to second-guess your baby, or push more intake. Trust your own baby to know when she’s hungry, and help her learn that it’s OK to stop eating when her little tummy is full.

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