When my eight-month old son is full, he arches his back and turns his head to the side, with his arms rising up by his ears. Across the highchair tray, I briefly register this cue but hardly pause, instead continuing to scoop up another spoonful of baby food, inch it close to his mouth and, cajoling, say, “Ok, just one last bite.”
Either because he’s such a mellow baby or because he’s now been conditioned (or a combination of the two), he always accepts the last bite. I feel triumphant.
However, the last time this happened, I actually paused. In an effort to be mindful of my parenting practices I took a moment to think through the pedagogy of what I was doing. Offering “just one last bite” felt like the right thing to do. It’s what I’ve seen done countless times, and perhaps in the recesses of my mind, was how I remembered being fed as a baby.
But while it may have felt right for me as the mother, I considered how it felt for my son. Here's a baby simply responding to the self-regulation mechanisms in his brain, signaling to him that he's full. He communicates this information to me in the only way he can and, from his point of view, I don’t listen. Instead, I force him to ignore what his body's telling him and, instead, reward him with a smile for doing so.
What do I gain from forcing “just one last bite?" Is one more spoonful of nutrition really going to make a difference on his growth chart? A more important question might be, what do I risk from forcing just one last bite?
As reported in the New York Times, “The overwhelming majority of babies are lean at birth, but by the time they reach kindergarten, many have acquired excess body fat that sets the stage for a lifelong weight problem."
If we're being frank, it’s no stretch to say that, by adulthood, the majority of us have messed up relationships with food. We are largely emotional eaters, who've pretty much lost the concept of feeling full. When we do push back from the table, groaning that we are “soooo full,” we are usually far past the real point where our bodies actually felt full.
The signals from the brain telling us that we’ve had as much as we need have grown so quiet, we don’t even notice them anymore. Instead, we continue to eat until other signals from the brain start firing off, such as, “I’m so full my stomach hurts,” and “I’m so full I need to lie down.”
How far back does this unhealthy relationship with food begin? Is that “just one last bite” we push on to babies really as innocent as it seems? Sadly, the list of awarenesses that children have, and adults have lost, is very long. The awareness of listening to their bodies when it comes to hunger and feeling full is one that we, as adults, pay a steep price for having lost.
Adults spend huge amounts of time, money, and energy on arbitrary weight loss goals, suffer from a slew of medical ailments related to our overeating, and feel the emotional pain of being dissatisfied with our appearances.
The problem is worse in certain cultures, such as my own South Asian culture, in which "food-pushing" is practically a national pastime. At family gatherings, you can be holding a full plate of food and still be pushed to “take more” by any given relative. This insistence on eating more, even after one has already eaten, begins as soon as an infant starts solids.
I can hear parents of finicky toddlers desperately rebuke that they need to force “just one last bite” because their child is at a stage where they spend more time refusing food than eating it. It's a terribly stressful situation parents can find themselves in, desperately concerned that their child is not receiving adequate nutrition. It is, however, not the scenario I am referring to in this piece.
I'm talking about when a child has been adequately fed, received the necessary nutrition, and is now signaling that they are full. This is the point where the desire of the parent to feed “just one last bite” is fueled less by a concern for the child’s nutritional intake, and more by parental ego.
It feels good to scrape that last bit of baby food from the bowl. It feels good to place an empty jar in the recycling bin. However, I argue we forsake this mildly selfish good feeling and instead trust our children. When we trust our children to listen to their own bodies, we allow them to develop and trust their own body awareness. They trust that these signals from their brains are real and important. And we can build this trust from the moment they're born. It should be part of our job as parents to encourage, foster, and nurture this trust.
It will only serve our children well.