Feeding and eating are arguably the most important behaviours that humans learn after birth. Both innate – which see newborns rooting for their mother’s breast – and learned skills. Feeding as learning is a perspective on infant feeding, and one which benefits from close observation, patience, time and learning from experience – both for parents and infants. Infants learn with all their senses. Designed to stimulate a reward response in the brain; feeding is natures way of supporting survival. Infants learn to associate feeding with pleasure and satisfaction.  Feeding is also about acquiring the physical skills needed to help infants feed themselves as they grow.  Eye contact and those innate sensory experiences like touch and smell, associated with feeding and the pleasure response, are also primary in bonding and attachment. Other interactions during feeding, both signal and model ways to communicate and express needs. Later on infants become practised at copying, taking turns and learning new feeding skills once solids have become established. Taking part in family meals is another essential experience of feeding as learning. Around 9-12 months and through feeding, older infants and young toddlers are primed to explore all the sensory, social and physical capabilities they have learned to date.

Physical feeding skills

Infants’ feeding skills develop rapidly during the weaning phase and sensitive window at 6-12 months and continue for years to come. Physical feeding skills include tongue and palate moments, sucking and swallowing milk.  Later on chewing, sifting, discerning lumps and rough textures, separating solids and liquids and managing food in the mouth. Gagging signals a reluctance to move food to the back of the mouth for swallowing, but is not choking.  It is a mechanism to protect the airway, and allows a young child to control the food in their mouth.  Mouthing toys is helpful. The self feeding approach is a great way to develop feeding skills from an earlier age, and is suited to most but not all infants (and parents!) Using fists from 6 months and pincer-grasp with finger and thumb from around 9 months. Hand-eye coordination gets lots of practice with using soft cutlery for mashed or combined foods and develops those fine motor skills. Pouch foods sucked directly from the pouch, on the other hand, provide very limited learning and should be actively discouraged, unless under specific dietetic guidance.

Practice, praise and encouragement

Developing focussed attention and learning to sit at the table with others can be hard for young children. Keep mealtimes short – 20 minutes is long enough! All are learning experiences, and like all learned behaviours, will improve with regular practice, praise and encouragement.  Creation of good memories around food, feeding and mealtimes are important too. There is considerable value in reinforcing the positives, whilst ignoring repeated or unwanted behaviours.  Providing effective praise, and naming what they are doing well boosts your little one’s feelings of pleasure and achievement. This drives repetition of course, as all children enjoy attention, praise and feelings of achievement. This will lead to improved feeding skills, more learning and ultimately better nutritional intake.

Making mealtimes better

Designed to be highly pleasurable, eating food stimulates the production of feel-good hormones like dopamine in the brain, essential to see us going back for more food.  Nature’s clever trick! This is a time of intense learning and adaption, full of enjoyment and pleasure. Stresses and anxieties however, difficult early experience or illness can all interfere with this process, and parents can find this a challenging and overwhelming time. Speaking with other parents, joining a local group or focussing on feeding as learning can all be helpful ways to adapt.  This year, during 2023-4, I will be facilitating online parent workshops called Making Mealtimes Better designed for older infants, toddlers and pre-school children to help bridge the gaps in learning, helping parents re-imagine mealtimes and develop new skills themselves.