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Raising Healthy Eaters: Lessons Learned from Breastfeeding What's Cooking?
Katja Leccisi MS RDN, Mont-Tremblant, Quebec, Canada

 

As parents, we try to do what’s right when feeding our children. Unfortunately, that’s no easy task with so much confusion about what that is exactly. Nutritional advice is forever changing. Foods that were supposedly healthy one month are apparently off the list the next. In my experience as a dietitian and lactation consultant, I have seen many well-meaning parents get so caught up in the do’s and don’ts of what is good and what is bad, that the simple pleasure of eating disappears. Mealtimes become stressful when parents worry about all this and whether their child is eating enough or too much, and what to do about it. The happy family meal around the table seems a thing of the past.

My focus is on helping children develop a healthy relationship with food and eating. The goal is for our children to become adults who listen to their signals of hunger and satiety, who like to discover and try new foods, and who take pleasure in eating. How can we make this happen? Let’s look at what we learn from breastfeeding that instils healthy eating habits in our children.

1. Eat when hungry, stop when satisfied.

As a breastfeeding mom, you are giving your child a great start. A baby is born knowing when he is hungry and when he has had enough to eat. You respect these signals of hunger and satiety. Your baby can eat when she’s hungry, and when she’s had enough she will stop.

Can you imagine making your child keep breastfeeding once he’s had enough? Or purposely refusing to nurse even though your baby is giving you all the signs that he’s hungry again? So why do we feel we can make a five-year-old eat more when she says she’s full? Trust in your child, just as you did when she was a baby. Respecting signals of hunger and satiety is fundamental in the development of healthy and normal attitudes toward food and eating.

As children grow up, things may get more confusing. How many of us have heard or said, “Just eat two more bites,” “You can have dessert when you finish that plate of food,” or “You can’t be hungry, you only just ate,” or “No second helpings!” Children grow at different rates, and it is normal for their hunger levels to vary enormously, from week to week and even from day to day. Remember that growth spurt at two months, when you breastfed round the clock to satisfy your baby? Well, that could be happening in your preschooler too, not to mention your teen.

Internationally renowned food author Ellyn Satter says that parents are responsible for what, when and where food is offered (providing regular meals and snacks), while children are responsible for how much and whether they eat.  Trust your child!

2. Try, try again.

You didn’t give up the first time you had difficulty breastfeeding, so don’t give up the first time your child looks at a new food and says no! A child may be exposed to a new food as many as ten or twelve times before he accepts it. Children will eventually eat what their parents eat, so it is important for you to sit down at the table with them and eat what they are eating. In my experience, it’s very easy for parents to give up too quickly, or turn mealtime into a battle or power struggle, when a child refuses a food.

Children have little control over many things in their lives but what they eat is one of them. Let them explore, keep offering new foods, show them that you enjoy them, and eventually they will join you. In the meantime, teach them to politely say, “No thank you” to something they don’t care for, which is much more acceptable than “Yuck!” and give them the option of quietly spitting the food out into a napkin if they don’t want to swallow it. Try serving at least one food that you know they like at each meal, so they have a fall back option. Be creative, and have fun with food. Let them help you shop for it, prepare it, and serve it in attractive ways—they will be more likely to try something if they were involved with getting it to the table.

3. Keep mealtimes pleasant and eat together.

Katja's children holding pies in kitchenRemember how well a breastfeeding session went when you were calm and unhurried, when you kept your cool even though your baby was tired and cranky? And, of course, you are always with your baby when you are breastfeeding! Can you imagine its having been a good feed if you were telling  your baby to hurry up, latch on and get done? And it would be impossible to feed your baby if he were not cuddled close to you. Let’s bring these concepts forward in time. How can you expect your toddler to eat those peas if you are disappointed that he won’t? Or your teen to finish her meatloaf if others are arguing at the table? Mealtimes should be a time to put hot topics aside and stick to something pleasant. With young children, talk about the food you are eating, where it comes from or grows, how it tastes, feels, smells. With all ages, it is a perfect time to catch up on each other’s day, to stay involved with that active teenager you hardly see around the house any more.

Mealtime should be a positive time, one that brings love, attention and energy. From young childhood onward, socialization is learned at the table, in the company of others. Relationships that develop while eating with others build a sense of community and belonging. Eat together whenever possible. Research repeatedly shows that children, and teens who eat meals with their families on a regular basis fare better socially, academically, and nutritionally. Sitting in front of the television, or wolfing down something while standing at the counter just cannot compare to conversation and togetherness around the table.

4. Remember that eating is a joyful and sensual experience.

No one knows this more than your breastfeeding baby! She gazes up at you, or softly closes her eyes as she suckles, she holds on to you or gently kneads your skin, her toes curl, and she is delighted. Moving ahead, as a toddler, she explores by rubbing food in her hair, squishing it through her fingers, and by seeing what happens when she smells it, licks it, and bites it. Why does the pleasure have to go away as our children age?  Ellyn Satter says, “When the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers.” Eating is not just about filling up our stomach, or even about getting the right amounts and kinds of nutrients. Eating is about taking good care of ourselves and our children. It’s about pleasure, socialization, identity. Think about the difference between “eat and run” and “dine and savor.”

As a breastfeeding mom, you are giving your child a great start. A baby is born knowing when he is hungry and when he has had enough to eat. You respect these signals of hunger and satiety. Your baby can eat when she’s hungry, and when she’s had enough she will stop.

As your child grows, help her to keep hold of the joy of eating. Encourage her to eat slowly, sitting at the table, taking in the whole experience—how the food looks, smells, tastes. Certainly there will be days when you all have to speed through the meal to make an appointment on time, or you may even have to eat in the car. But, we all need to slow down sometime. Remember how wonderful it felt to finally sit still and breastfeed your baby, with nothing but the present moment on your mind? It won’t take any longer, but if you change your attitude about the preparation of the meal, setting the table, even the cleanup, you may find that it becomes another time to savor with your family.

5. Eat whole, fresh and varied food.

A mother’s milk is a complete food for her baby. We know it contains everything he needs to grow and thrive. It has a variety of tastes depending on what mom eats, and its nutrient composition varies over the course of each feed, over the day, over the months and years. What a wonderful, whole, fresh and varied diet, an excellent model on which to base your child’s diet as he grows. What is it in human milk that makes it so healthy? Scientists keep on discovering new and important components, the interaction of which are impossible to replicate in manufactured products (see The “Science of Mother’s Milk”).

Teach your child to see food as FOOD, not some package on the shelf. Good nutrition means eating a well-balanced and varied diet of foods in as close to their natural state as possible. Offer him a colorful, varied, interesting range of foods, and you won’t need to worry so much about whether he is getting too much of this or not enough of that.

6. Every baby is unique and you know your baby best.

Perhaps your first child nursed around the clock for months, while your second slept for long stretches after a few weeks. One needed to be burped every feed or she spat up, the other was a voracious feeder and never lost a drop. As a mother, you learned and adapted your parenting to best meet YOUR baby’s needs. There are no absolute rules that suit all babies. The same goes for feeding your child as she grows. He may need a lot of encouragement to try a new food, or she will happily devour anything put in front of her. Mothers, trust in yourselves and your children. If you follow the principles you’ve learned from breastfeeding, then you won’t need to worry so much that what you are doing is right.


How-to-feed-your-kids-front-coverKatja Leccisi is a registered dietitian/nutritionist in the USA and Canada, a former International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, and a La Leche League Leader with over 20 years of experience working in public health centers, daycares, schools, and the community. She is a mother and stepmother of three children.

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Comments

  1. Helpful to be able to see the other way of breastfeeding. Eating healthy food and of course the baby

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