The way you feed your child in early infancy could impact on eating habits later in life

Thursday, 12 July 2018

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Psychologists at Oxford Brookes University and the University of Portsmouth have investigated the relationship between the way mothers feed their babies and the babies’ willingness to eat.

Findings from the study suggest that parental feeding behaviours may have an impact on infant food acceptance early in childhood.
Pushing the infant to eat for example (i.e. when parents force the infant to eat by pushing the spoon against her mouth) was found to have a negative effect on infants’ willingness to eat.

The study found that the child’s willingness to eat was significantly related to synchrony, defined as the matching of behaviours between mother and baby during feeding (i.e. spoon approaching baby’s mouth and mouth opening). The findings of the study showed that being in rhythm with the baby as well as understanding the signals of refusal helps babies to eat willingly.

Dr Cristina Costantini, Lecturer in Psychology at Oxford Brookes University and lead author of the study said: “The transition between milk feeding and solid feeding can be a delicate process for both mother and infant. Changes in the situation and the structure of actions mean that both must learn to interact with each other in a different way, for example during milk feeding, the baby is in the mother’s arms, while during solid feeding, the child is generally separate from the mother’s body.

Understanding parental feeding behaviours and how these behaviours relate to their child’s willingness to eat will allow researchers to identify the risk factors for potential feeding problems or negative eating habits later on in childhood and adulthood.

Dr Cristina Costantini, Lecturer in Psychology, Oxford Brookes University

“There is existing evidence suggesting that the weaning period is of great importance as it is during this time that children build the foundations for later eating habits and what they experience throughout the process could have an impact on their food preferences later.

“Understanding parental feeding behaviours and how these behaviours relate to their child’s willingness to eat will allow researchers to identify the risk factors for potential feeding problems or negative eating habits later on in childhood and adulthood.”

The study involved 37 mother-infant pairs who were video-recorded during mealtimes one week after the beginning of weaning and when the baby reached seven months of age.

The first five minutes of mealtimes were coded for maternal feeding behaviours, such as co-eating and pushing the baby to eat, infant’s food willingly eaten, and synchrony in feeding.

The study also found that infant willingness to eat was further significantly related to co-eating defined as maternal empathetic behaviour which helps the child eat food (i.e. mum opens her own mouth while feeding her baby). This suggests that co-eating plays an important role in infant food acceptance at the onset of weaning.

Synchrony during feeding was found to have increased with time, suggesting that mother and infant adapt their behaviours and develop their relational rhythms during feeding as with other interactions, such as playing.

The paper Synchrony, Co-Eating and Communication During Complementary Feeding in Early Infancy, is published in the journal Infancy and can be found online.

Dr Cristina Costantini runs the Infant Feeding Network (IFN) at Oxford Brookes University. The IFN provides parents and health professionals with information on the latest research studies on infant feeding. The IFN research group aims to find out more about infant feeding practices, child eating habits, and parental feeding styles. Further information can be found on the IFN  webpage.