Ask the Pediatrician: How Can I Encourage Healthy Eating Habits?

It's not just about what you feed your baby—it's about how.
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mom spoon feeding toddler
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Meet Dina DiMaggio, MD, and Anthony F. Porto MD, MPH, official spokespeople for the American Academy of Pediatrics and the co-authors of The Pediatrician’s Guide to Feeding Babies and Toddlers. Each month, they’ll write about the latest AAP guidelines, studies and seasonal issues affecting babies and toddlers. Follow them on Instagram @pediatriciansguide.

As parents of toddlers and young children, we know how much time parents spend making sure they’re doing everything possible to keep their children healthy. But not all parents know that lifelong health begins as early as in utero. The first 1,000 days—from conception onward—of a child’s life are critically important because food preferences, dietary patterns and the risk of obesity rapidly develop through age 2. Here are five tips on how to give your child a healthy start.

1. Listen to your child’s cues

Your child’s body language will let you know when they are hungry and full. Hungry babies will:

  • Open their mouths
  • Make sucking sounds
  • Smack their lips
  • Bob their heads up and down across your chest
  • Root (turn their cheek to the side that is stroked)
  • Suck on their hands and fingers
  • Become more alert and fussy

Full babies will:

  • Fall asleep at the breast or bottle
  • Turn away from the nipple
  • Slow down and stop sucking

2. Vary diet from the beginning

A child’s taste preferences are mostly set by 9 months of age, so it’s important to offer a variety of flavors, spices, textures and colors when introducing solid foods. Currently recommendations say to begin solid feeding between 4 and 6 months of life. But you don’t have to do it all at once: One food should be added every three to five days to give you time to observe for an allergy. Once your child does well with one food, you can start trying new foods, or pair a new food with one he or she already likes.

3. Practice responsive feeding

This is a key strategy to establish healthy eating and food relationships. Responsive feeding is when parents and caregivers respond promptly when a child signals she is hungry or full, and do so in a way that is warm, nurturing and affectionate. Practicing responsive feeding has several benefits:

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  • It lowers the risk of a child becoming overweight as they get older

  • It helps children learn how to feed themselves

  • It makes meal time easier

  • It creates a bonding experience between parent and child

4. Understand it’s a two-way street

Your role is to offer your child food when they are hungry. Your child’s role is to eat how much they want to eat. This idea also works if your child is a picky eater.

5. Stay active from the start

It’s never too early to be active; even babies need physical activity! It helps them learn and reach important milestones, like sitting up and crawling. What can you do? Take five to 10 minute active breaks throughout the day. For example, have your infant use a playmat with toys suspended above to give him the opportunity to kick and reach and make him stronger.

You guessed it—toddlers need daily physical activity too. Active play helps your child develop strong muscles and good coordination skills. Even if you live in an area where your child can’t play outside, you can try indoor activities like hide and seek or dancing to your favorite music together.

About the authors:

Dina works as a board certified pediatrician at Pediatric Associates of NYC and at NYU Langone Medical Center. She has received numerous research awards, along with Patient’s Choice award, compassionate doctor recognition and was featured in the New York Times Magazine as a Super Doctors and New York Rising Star. She is dedicated to educating parents on baby and toddler nutrition and gives talks to parent groups throughout New York.

Anthony is a board certified pediatrician and board certified pediatric gastroenterologist. He is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Associate Clinical Chief of Pediatric Gastroenterology at Yale University. He has won numerous awards including the Norman J. Siegel Award at Yale University for leadership and providing outstanding clinical care as well as Physician of the Year during his time at Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital. He has been named Castle Connolly Top Doctors since 2012. Anthony is interested in nutrition, especially in the care of children with difficulty gaining weight, feeding issues, and celiac disease. He loves teaching and educating parents and gives lectures to parents throughout New York and Connecticut.

Published October 2017

Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.

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