WHEN MEALTIME BECOMES A POWER STRUGGLE

NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
WHEN MEALTIME BECOMES A POWER STRUGGLE
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q. My 9-month-old is resisting solid foods, and mealtimes are turning into a power struggle. We introduced solids at six months, and she has been breast-fed, with an occasional bottle of breast milk.

She is not interested in bottles anymore. We are trying not to push her too hard but she ends up eating only 1-2 ounces per day. Do you have any tips to help her take more interest in solid foods without a struggle?

A. Between 7 and 9 months, babies learn to touch forefinger to thumb – the pincer grasp that gives them new power over their world.

They now can pick up tiny objects, look at them and explore them with their fingers before putting them in their mouth to learn all about everything within reach.

Now that they can deploy their fingers and thumbs, they want to use them as often as possible. They would much rather feed themselves than be fed.

As soon as a baby learns the pincer grasp, you must let her use it – or she will resist being fed by you. When you need to spoon-feed her, give her two spoons – one for each hand. With both hands occupied, she may let you use a third spoon to feed her yourself.

It will still be more exciting for her to pick up soft foods to put in her mouth – all by herself. She wants to try out her new abilities on her own – a big adjustment for her, and for her parents who may long for the cuddly, compliant baby they once had.

But there is no turning back. Instead, take advantage of her drive to practice fine motor skills. Offer her a soft bit of cooked meat, bread, cheese or scrambled egg, and let her have fun feeding herself.

Just give her one or two bits of food at a time, since most of it will end up on the floor anyway. And stop as soon as she loses interest.

Be prepared to start over at every meal. The theory is that many young children will not try a new food or flavor until it has been presented to them 15 times.

When your child turns away from food, she is not rejecting you. She is reminding you that children learn through patient repetition. If you are ready for this process, you’ll feel less frustrated.

You’re right not too push too hard. Eating is a behavior that – like breathing – can’t be forced. It must build on the child’s own drives.

Battles over food always backfire. The child inevitably gets her way, but nobody wins. If you can keep mealtimes relaxed and pressure-free, your baby is likelier to connect food and eating with enjoyable times of being together.

As she learns how much fun it is to feed herself fingerfood, she will begin to imitate you. Later on, she will learn to eat with fork, knife and spoon – and manners.

Meanwhile you may share your concerns with your child’s pediatrician, who can measure her height and weight and let you know whether her growth is on track. Ask about vitamin supplements, including Vitamin D and iron. At this age, limited interest in eating is very common, but if a child’s growth is not continuing apace, the pediatrician will consider other causes that will require other solutions.

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton heads the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is Director of Strategy, Planning and Program Development at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.