There are dozens of books and theories on best ways to feed babies, introduce babies to food, and overcome fussy eating in toddlers and children.
How confident are you in your ability to provide the nutrition and vitamins your child needs for this short period in life that gives them so much physical, emotional and mental growth?
We believe positive energy and harmonious relationships between parents and children are the best way to create successful eating habits for life.
Over the years I have researched and attended workshops on establishing best-eating routines within the home, from breastfeeding … to food preparation … to baby-led weaning … to packing lunch boxes … to behaviour solutions.
In this article I’ve explained some of the best tips and ideas I’ve come across from experts, peers and through my own direct experience. I hope you find these Top 12 Tips helpful – and you find confidence to use these proven methods if they instinctively feel right for you.
Note: Parenting Energy and their writers are not health care specialists or child-health nurses and we recommend you always seek professional advice for any dietary or health concerns with members of your family. This information is provided as support and to assist like-minded parents in understanding gentle, child-led, peaceful ideas.
1. Extend breastfeeding.
No surprises here that our number one tip is to breastfeed your baby and treat it like your highest priority in life – because breastfeeding can literally save lives: yours – by regulating hormones and preventing free-radical damage in your reproductive organs; your baby’s – by strengthening their immune system and providing a perfect mix of nutrients, plus many other essential life supports. Read this Baby Centre page for a complete list of benefits to mother and baby.
It is important to provide your baby with breast milk for as long as possible – up to a few years. Our recommendation on how to make it easier to breastfeed for longer include:
– Stop watching the clock, ignore feed frequency and duration, and feed your baby on demand. Your baby will learn how to recognize a full stomach, will realize he/she can choose when to start and stop eating to satisfy hunger, and will recognize that feeding helps with feeling comfortable. A baby cannot put on too much weight from breastfeeding … their chubby little arms and legs will disappear when they start crawling at around six-months old. We believe it is essential to let babies learn the feeling of satisfying hunger based on their own instinct.
– Take a seat and stay a while, don’t rush your feeds or give your baby the idea that you have somewhere else to be. Let him/her see that her feeding is always important to you. Relax into feeding sessions and feel the loving energy – this will trigger hormones that will help keep your supply strong.
– Let your baby feed-to-sleep and dream-feed. A baby who is sucking while falling asleep feels safe, comforted, warm and content. Holding onto your nipple is better than medicated pain-relief (safer, healthier, more effective) when getting teeth or when experiencing cold/flu, colic or reflux. (A dummy was created to satisfy the baby’s natural instinct to suck for comfort… so feel satisfied you are doing a perfectly natural thing by letting your baby hold onto you instead of a dummy).
– Hormones released during breastfeeding promote tiredness in both mother and child, which is nature’s way of telling us it is naturally normal for mother to sleep with child. You may like to consider co-sleeping and bed-sharing as a way to improve your breastfeeding success. The book ‘The no-cry sleep solution’ contains helpful, instinct-based theories on how to help your baby sleep and achieve successful extended breast-feeding with co-sleep and gentle settling techniques.
– Watch your supply and your baby’s reaction to your milk. If you find your supply is low, is decreasing, or your baby’s interest in breastfeeding is decreasing (even after doing the three recommendations above) you may benefit from examining what you are putting in your body that could affect the quality of your milk.
Your body may produce less milk if it is not healthy suitable for a baby to drink. Smoking, alcohol or caffeine will affect your breast milk supply and even the taste to baby (a natural prevention we can be grateful for). The same can happen with some foods and drinks. This web page shows some foods that commonly cause problems for babies. Every nursing mum and baby is different and the best thing you can do is be aware.
2. Set-up a comfortable environment for learning to eat.
From the moment your baby can sit in your lap or in a high-chair, involve them in your family mealtime … for breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner.
Create a routine or consistent set-up of furniture and eating arrangements that are used exclusively for eating, to help your baby associate the routine with eating.
Include your baby in the mealtime by breastfeeding at the same time that you and other members of your family are eating. Let your baby watch what is happening at the table.
3. Watch for signs that your baby wants to eat.
Trust your baby’s natural instinct – your baby will show some obvious signs when he/she is ready to try solids. Some signs include:
– Watching you intently as you eat.
– Getting upset or agitated when you eat in front of baby, or when there are smells of food cooking food in the house (such as evenings).
– Trying to grab your fork or food when it passes by his/her face.
– Putting everything within reach onto the mouth.
– Trying to take food off your plate (or the kitchen table or bench).
I have found that in addition to the above sure-signs of readiness to eat, that our babies’ interest in food increases drastically when the first tooth appears – and for each tooth thereafter.
Readiness to eat solids on a regular basis will happen at different ages, generally after five months but even up to ten months. Watch your baby’s interest in eating at different times of the day and start introducing solids at the time of day they are most alert and interested (usually lunch to begin with, then also breakfast, then also early dinner).
There is no need to worry or rush your baby into eating solids several times per day if you are breastfeeding and they are not showing signs of being hungry, irritable, sick, and they are consistently gaining weight and are developing physically and cognitively in accordance with other babies their age. It does not help to force food into your baby’s mouth or make them upset.
4. Starting with the very first experience your baby has with food it is important you teach them that it is exciting, safe, and enjoyable to eat food.
Try the following ways of creating a safe, enjoyable and exciting energy for eating:
– Sit and relax with baby and take your time preparing and picking at and tasting food.
– Tell stories and make light-hearted conversation. Smile often and use a patient, friendly tone of voice (to everyone within the eating environment).
– Talk about the food and show your interest and enjoyment in eating, and in accommodating other family members requests for different food, sauces, serving utensils, seating arrangements. Always stay positive and accommodating.
– If your baby is not responding well and seems uncomfortable eating with your regular seating arrangements, use another seating arrangement that helps them feel happy for a short period of time. We set our son up in a high chair in front of the Wiggles on TV every night for a week as he thoroughly enjoyed the Wiggles and they helped to create a safe and positive feeling. He started eating well, and after a week we returned him to the regular seating arrangement as he was no longer intimidated or concerned about eating.
5. Teach every family member about Life Foods and the Life-Food-Fun game.
Life Foods are healthy, fresh foods that look the same when harvested as when in the kitchen. Labelled foods are modified foods and foods with sugar and additives that are not 100% nutritious and good for the body. These are usually foods in the aisles at supermarkets and especially those in colorful packaging.
Our method of identifying healthy foods is easy for children to understand. It is fun for the whole family to play the Red Light / Green Light game by spotting a food at home (or at the shops) and calling out ‘Green Light!’ or ‘Red Light!’.
Our little son very proudly identifies foods this way. Confronted with confectionery and ice cream at the movie store, he started singing ‘red light, red light, we don’t eat sugar, red light!’.
You can read about this game and its benefits here.
6. Learn which foods are not safe for babies.
Some examples are honey, nuts, dairy, and packaged foods with additives (flavours and preservatives) and added sugar. Some babies may have allergic reactions so it is important you introduce just one ingredient every few days to begin with, and only provide it again if you’re sure it is safe. It is important to track foods your child is eating so you can diagnose the cause of skin irritations, behaviour changes, upset stomach, sleep disruption or allergic reactions. You can track the foods you are introducing to your child with the range of diaries I’ve made available to you, if you are in my private Facebook page or mailing list.
I strongly recommend that we don’t feed our baby rusk sticks, because they substitute food and learning-to-eat experiences with a ‘food’ that has no nutrition or health benefits. They also carry germs. When your baby is teething, give them a healthy food to chew or suck on (see points below), or your breast for comfort-sucking. This way you know that the food going in will serve your baby’s diet in a positive way.
7. Let your baby suck on food through a net for their first experiences at eating.
You can buy a Fresh Food Feeding Mesh to introduce your baby to first foods. These help your baby to learn tastes, coordinate hand-to-mouth self-feeding, take in small amounts of nutrients and vitamins, and get some relief from teething by chewing on the food.
Try spoon-feeding and self-feeding and observe your baby’s reaction.
Some babies like to suck and eat from a spoon from a very young age, and others prefer to eat with their hands and won’t take to a spoon at all. It is ok to let your baby feed himself as opposed to eating from a spoon, and there is good evidence to suggest that self-feeding is more effective in setting up lifelong healthy eating behaviour. A great resource for learning how to encourage self-feeding is the book and website Baby-Led Weaning.
It is advisable to only introduce foods to your baby’s diet when they are six months old. Before six months, their digestive system may be too immature to break-down and digest the food correctly. From six months, you can help your baby eat virtually any meal that your family is sharing with baby-led weaning. Select an appropriate ingredient off your plate for your baby to hold and have a suck on. For example, a slice of bread, a juicy steak, a piece of cucumber or carrot, or let them get their hands and fingers sloppy in the sauce. Licking and sucking from their hands is a perfect way to introduce flavours and gauge their reaction to the taste and texture.
8. Make your food at home.
While there are many supermarket products available for feeding babies from 4 months of age, nothing beats home cooking and preparation. Why? There are several benefits.
– You know exactly what your baby is eating and because you are more involved, you will take greater interest in what foods or flavours your baby enjoys.
– You can choose what you want your baby to try one ingredient at a time, instead of several ingredients blended together in one sachet.
– You can give your baby foods that are typically within your pantry and fridge that fit in with your typical family menu. Your baby will get a taste for ‘foods of the future’ (and won’t be fussy later on when weaned off supermarket pre-packaged foods.)
– You won’t assume your baby’s stomach is full because he/she completed a sachet or jar (and you are, or are not, prepared to open another). Healthy eating involves eating until full, not until the plate is empty; home-prepared meals are easier to serve more, or less of, than packaged portions.
– You feel more confident and capable to whip up a fresh healthy meal at home, and away from home too. Relying on packaged baby foods means you are less likely to be able to provide a fresh meal when socializing away from home – instead you may find yourself buying foods or not feeding your baby at all.
There are many websites that recommend suitable foods to feed your baby, including this one for preparing simple baby foods yourself at home: Homemade Baby Food.
9. Don’t worry about rules and enforcing them, or get hung up on respectful behaviour.
A very easy way to turn children away from eating is to enforce they follow rules ‘just because’. Requiring that your child sits at the table (whether he/she is hungry or not) will create a resentful relationship and affect the positive energy that you have built in other ways. We often don’t recognize that while we are planning and preparing meals, our child is quite happy doing their own activity and they aren’t mentally preparing for it the way we are. As parent, taking a a flexible approach helps. Consider when your child last ate and whether it is reasonable to expect them to eat again.
– Invite your child to eat with you, and ask them how hungry they are. Involve them in decision-making about the serving of their meal.
– If your child doesn’t want to eat right away, guide them in a polite way to say ‘No, thank you’.
– If you feel as if you must force your child to sit at the table out of respect, ask yourself why you feel this way? Is it a belief from your childhood? Without quoting ‘respect’ or ‘manners’, what other positive outcome do you want?
REMEMBER: Young children will learn good conduct, respect and table manners from watching their parents. If you set an example of calm, peaceful, positive behaviour, and show that you are enjoying the ritual of eating as a family, your child will want to join you.
10. Empower your young child to find food themselves by making the kitchen a welcoming and user-friendly place.
You can help your child learn how to find foods to satisfy their hunger from the moment they start to crawl. You might find it helpful to keep an open mind to re-arranging your kitchen and living areas as your children grow, to accommodate their changing needs and capabilities.
– Keep your kitchen open to your children and put safety latches in place to prevent unsafe drawers and cupboards opening. Move fragile crockery, heavy cans and saucepans, and chemical-based cleaning products up high out of reach. Fill your lower cupboards with your child’s serving plates, drink bottles and utensils and other safe kitchen items such as plastic containers, tea towels and bibs.
– Fill baskets or open-lid containers with fresh food such as bananas, avocados and mandarins. Fill other baskets with other food you buy especially for your child and eat as a family such as bread, wheat-bix, dried fruit. Keep these baskets at a lower level and in an open, light and welcoming location, so your child can grab and start showing interest in food, when they are feeling hungry.
– Only buy healthy foods, mostly produce and life foods. If you have foods in your pantry that have added sugar, colours and flavours, are extra saucy (with additives), or are in colorful supermarket packaging, your child is likely to refuse healthy fresh food now and in the future. If you can change your diet as a parent to healthy and fresh foods, you will find your little copycat will love eating good food too.
– Arrange your fridge for easy selection of good foods. As a parent it can be a wonderful time-saver to chop up fruit and vegetables immediately after purchase to store in a clear plastic air-tight container in your fridge. You will find it easier to select food for cooking and you will save time. You can also ask your baby/crawler/toddler to point at the fresh food they want to eat. An older child can use a step-ladder to retrieve food independently.
11. Pack food to go.
With babies and young children it only takes a few experiences of the same meal for them to like and happily eat it. If you typically leave the house without food and buy fast-food (including healthy foods such as subway and sushi), your baby will expect it every time you go out… even associating the food with landmarks they see out the car window.
It is just as easy to help them create associations between home-prepared meals and going out. Crawlers, toddlers and young children simply adore having their own lunch box and opening it to find a variety of fresh foods. You can pack in your lunch box finger foods such as cucumber sticks with dip, fresh strawberries, apples, banana, sandwich triangles, a slice of home-made cake, nuts, sultanas, a small container of yoghurt (sugar & additive free).
My personal belief is if I haven’t had time to pack a healthy lunch, then I’m not ready to go. I don’t leave home until I’ve packed food, which sometimes means I’m a little late. If there’s so much pressure that I don’t have time to pack a lunch box on a regular basis, I often cancel plans and re-work my schedule altogether to be simpler and less rushed.
12. Involve your young children in food preparation and cooking.
There are many learning benefits to involving your young child in food preparation, which you can read about in one of my recipes – just click the menu above for a full list of family-friendly food.
Start with your baby watching you from his/her high chair. Pass small finger foods to your baby for a taste-test. Then as your baby grows, encourage them to stand on a step-ladder next to you to help with mixing, tipping, and taste-testing.
You can also teach your baby/crawler/toddler the concept of cooking and eating home-made food from their very own miniature work bench or table. Set them up with fruit and a blunt knife to chop and make their own fruit salad. Give them dough to knead for their very own loaf of bread. Give them cookie cutters to cut shapes out of bread, cheese and watermelon. Prepare several ingredients like crushed crackers, diced sautéed fruit, plain yoghurt and berries, to let them build their own pudding by layering the ingredients in a clear bowl and setting the mix in the fridge. Ask them to create a herb and spice mix for you with various jars of spices, like dried parsley, basil, rosemary, salt and pepper.
We take an organic approach to raising babies and educating young children on how they can support their body’s needs, from their very first breath of air through to when they bravely step out of your sight to carry themselves through their day.
This is by teaching them to react to their body’s cues and prompts and preparing and cooking food for themselves. We hope you can visualize how the above 12 steps will help develop skills for life.
Day by day we aim to repair our bodies and have trust, faith and optimism for the future. You can join me as I walk to wellness in the private facebook group Joanna Haley Homestead (Journey to Wellness)
Joanna Haley, Author