By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

(NOTE: This article is adapted from “Feeding: The Brazelton Way,” by T. Berry Brazelton,M.D., and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., published by Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group).

As a child grows out of babyhood, a family’s goal is for her to feed herself independently and to enjoy eating enough of the right kind of foods to help her grow and be healthy. Parents will of course want to take into account her temperament.

Feeding a Quiet Child

A quiet, sensitive child may be on a different track from her peers. She may comply with being fed and continue to be compliant even during the usual times of conflict. For example, unlike other children her age, she may allow herself to be fed into the second year, apparently content to be a passive recipient.

Then, all of a sudden, refusal! No longer will she put up with being fed. Passive resistance may be her response. Her refusal to be fed is a warning to her parents to pull back and let her try feeding herself. Since she has not had experience with finger feeding or with utensils, her first attempts to feed herself may be clumsy. A big mess at every meal – food on her face, her clothes, the table, the floor, everywhere – will be the inescapable price for her earlier compliance.

Parents may even be thankful for the slobbery mess when it comes – a welcome relief from the initial food refusal of this phase of self-assertion! Patience with such a child will be the saving grace. Let her learn how to take over the job of feeding. Offer her only two bits at a time of an attractive finger food for each meal. Then ignore her struggle and leave it to her. Keep her company, but don’t cajole during meals. If and when she downs the two bits, offer her two more at a time, until she starts smooshing them or launching them over the edge of her high chair. This means it’s time to stop – until the next meal.

Don’t let her “graze” between meals. And for now, don’t worry about a well-rounded diet. Remember that this previously compliant child is quickly learning the skills of self-feeding. It might have taken her several months longer to learn had she been less passive and started in with her attempts to take over her own feeding earlier. Be patient and follow her lead.

Feeding an Active Child

At the other end of the temperament spectrum is the active, constantly moving, curious-about- everything child. She is far more interested in sights, sounds, and rushing around than in food.

A parent whose motive is to see that the child is well fed is bound to feel frustrated, even desperate.

“Sit down in your seat,” a worried parent will beg as the child climbs out of her high chair to hang teetering on the edge. The child looks up coyly, holding out one hand for a “cookie.” Anything she can eat will do as long as at the same time she can clamber around the house, up and over furniture and into drawers to pull out clean clothes with grubby fingers.

Many parents of active children have asked me: “Should I feed her on the run? She’ll never eat enough sitting down. She barely sits before she’s gone. I wait until she’s hungry, but she never is. I feel like I need to give her bits of food all through the day so that she’ll get enough. What should I do?”

Mealtime Advice

  1. Keep mealtimes a sacred time for the family to be together. Don’t let the phone or other interruptions interfere.
  2. When your child loses interest in sitting at the table – that’s it. Put her down and let her know her meal is over. No grazing between meals. No more food until the next meal.
  3. Make meals a fun time to be together – at least as much as is possible with a squirming, food-throwing toddler. Make meals as companionable as possible – you eat when she does. But if she doesn’t, eat your own meal and let her know that you can chat and be together if she stays at the table. If she squirms to leave, put her down. But she’ll have to wait for your attention until you’re done. Eventually she’ll learn to model on you.
  4. No television at the table or promises of special sweet desserts to get her to sit and eat.
  5. Be sure you let her feed herself. Never say, “Just one more bite.” If you do, you’ll be setting yourself up for testing.
  6. Don’t go to special trouble to cook her a special or exciting meal – your disappointment is likely to outweigh the benefits. Instead, let your child know that “this is what we’re having for dinner tonight.” If she doesn’t want it, she’ll have to see if she likes the next meal any better.
  7. Let her help with meals as soon as she is old enough to do even the smallest task, such as setting the table (start with the napkins only!), cleaning it with a sponge, and so on.
  8. Have your child’s pediatrician check her weight and growth, and ask her for supplements if necessary.
  9. Above all, don’t set meals up as a struggle or her high chair as a prison to keep her in.

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, prior to his passing, was the founder and head of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, 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 currently the Director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.