My work as a developmental psychologist focuses on how parents help their little ones develop healthy eating habits.
So, when I found out I was pregnant, I assumed feeding my child would come naturally. It wasn't long after introducing solid foods to my darling daughter that my professional knowledge was put to the test.
Like clockwork, my little bundle began showing an interest in solids around 5 months old. As soon as she took that first bite, I began to second-guess every feeding decision I made.
Mommy guilt, I shake my fist at you!
Because my research centers on reducing obesity risk in children, and because childhood obesity has reached epidemic state in the U.S., one of my goals is to raise a child who appreciates a variety of healthy (and yummy!) foods without overeating. In my quest to achieve this goal, I would question myself countless times during every feeding session.
What was floating through my mind? Probably the same things floating through yours!
Am I helping my child develop healthy eating habits? Is this the right way to feed my little one? Am I giving her too much food or not enough? If these foods are too yummy, will she stop eating bland foods? I think I could research children's eating behaviors for the next 50 years and still not have definitive answers to these questions (sorry, mamas!).
But along my journey of motherhood, I have learned a few things that have brought peace to my dinner table + my mind.
Sure, we trust our pediatricians, the AAP and random internet moms who seem to know it all... but trusting ourselves is key!
Introducing solids is one of the scariest experiences I have faced as a new mom, especially when my little one gags at the taste of new (usually green) foods.
So glad I took that three-hour Infant CPR class, by the way!
Despite my fears, I know that I have to trust my daughter's abilities and my judgment. If I held off on introducing solid foods, it would only become harder for both of us as time passed. It is through practice (and the occasional terrifying gagging sound) that children learn to chew and swallow foods with a variety of textures and consistencies.
As long as baby is given a safe environment and adult supervision during mealtimes, you can trust baby to know her own limits, and she can trust you to guide her efforts.
When we come across information on feeding our infants, whether from the government or a chitchat with a favorite mommy friend, we need to be mindful that every child is different.
So most little ones start with rice cereal? Your tiny tot is not an average (of course, you already knew she was so much more)! Indeed, children have different eating behaviors resulting from their genes and environment. Even siblings in the same family can have vastly different eating habits and needs.
So, keep in mind that what works for one child may not work for another child.
Yes, this means you can officially stop comparing your tiny tot's eccentric eating preferences to those of the pint-size health nut next door! I mean, what kind of baby loves broccoli purée, anyway?!
Early exposure to a variety of healthy foods with different textures and colors may broaden children's taste horizons and limit picky eating later in childhood.
In addition to offering the nutrition your little one needs, early introduction to some foods, such as peanuts and gluten, may actually reduce baby's risk of food allergies. That's right, introducing peanuts between 4 and 11 months of age has been shown to reduce the risk of peanut allergies in recent research! Of course, if your family has a history of severe food allergies, check with your pediatrician before introducing high-risk foods.
Be a role model.
Modeling good behaviors for our children is a challenging (but necessary) part of parenting, and modeling healthy eating behaviors for our children is no exception.
My research with colleagues has found that making positive comments about foods while we eat them (Mmm… this broccoli purée really is yummy!) can increase children's consumption of these foods, more than just eating the foods in front of our children.
Eating something that's not your favorite? Fake it till you make it, mama! (And take this as an opportunity to broaden your own healthy horizons!)
So, you're really selling that roasted red bell pepper and baby still isn't buying? In addition to modeling healthy behaviors, research indicates that repeatedly exposing little ones to new foods (10 to 15 exposures) can increase children's acceptance of a food. Thus, persistence is key to helping our children develop healthy eating habits.
As many mamas know, having a picky eater at the table can make mealtimes a struggle.
But it's important to remember that feeding our children and developing healthy habits is a long-term process.
Every day is different and there will be ups and downs throughout this bumpy marathon. Mealtimes can also be difficult if we place high expectations on ourselves.
Sure, the thought of preparing healthy home-cooked meals every day for our children sounds ideal. But, this expectation may not be realistic for mamas who are working hard to juggle life's many tasks at home or the office (read: every mama).
If you are able to squeeze this in to your hectic day, give yourself a pat on the back…and then give me a call, because I'm coming over for dinner! For us human mamas out there, let's try to forgive ourselves the next time we serve leftovers involving French fries as the primary vegetable.
After all, the most important part of feeding our children is that it is an opportunity to bond, and there's no better time to connect with our adorable little ones than when we are relaxed!