Responsive feeding with solids

How babies and children are fed at mealtimes to support long-term, happy and healthy eating habits is another important consideration during your weaning journey.  The term ‘responsive feeding’ is well recognised and one you may have come across before with breast or bottle feeding.  

Continuing to follow the principles of responsive feeding during weaning and beyond is encouraged by the World Health Organisation.  As your baby transitions from just milk feeds into their journey with solids, it’s important to consider how you can use a similar responsive feeding approach, but apply this to eating solids.

Responsive feeding is considered to have many benefits, including supporting baby’s health, wellbeing, long-term feeding habits and development.  The term describes a way of feeding which involves:

  • Taking time to understand and then respond to your baby’s cues (their communication to you) around feeding e.g. when they are hungry and when they have had enough
  • Nurturing a positive shared interaction between you and your baby during feeding and/or mealtimes
  • Trusting your baby’s ability for self-regulation (their ability to start and stop feeding in response to signs from their body)
  • Recognising feeding is not only about nutrition but also involves comfort, love, reassurance, patience and trust 

Much like responsive milk feeding moves away from a focus on prescribed routines, timetables, expectations, monitoring volumes or time passed since feeds – responsive weaning focuses on supporting your baby’s ability to regulate their appetite with food by responding to their cues at mealtimes.   Behaviour, body language, noises and expressions are their way of communicating with you, and how their weaning and eating experience evolves can depend on how you communicate back!

Responsive feeding during weaning is not just for babies following a BLW approach and can be used for spoon, baby-led or combination approach to weaning.

Understanding baby’s feeding cues during weaning

Once your baby has started weaning, the following guide can be used to get to grips with understanding babies’ common hunger and fullness cues (signals) – allowing you to respond appropriately with continuing and encouraging or discontinuing feeding/the mealtime respectively.  

You can see there are some overlaps, both between signs of hunger and fullness, but also with behaviours e.g. crying, that can be common in babies anyway.   Some signals are also more common in older babies (from 8-12 months), so they might become more apparent as you progress through weaning.  

Don’t worry if it takes time to get to grips with understanding your baby’s feeding signals – paying attention at mealtimes, having fun and embracing the process will mean you’ll be familiar with these and your baby in no time!

Hunger cues* in babies include:

  • Fussing or crying
  • Leaning towards or opening mouth towards a spoon or food
  • Opening mouth and hands
  • Gazing at foods
  • Exaggerated or expressive facial expressions, smiling, noise or cooing around food
  • Gets excited around food
  • Reaches or points for food
  • Shows or expresses wish for certain food or mealtime with sounds or words (older baby)

*These are not developmental signs of readiness for feeding

Fullness cues in babies include:

  • Closing mouth or clamping it shut
  • Pushing food, your hand or the spoon away
  • Turning head and/or body away from food
  • Crying or showing stress signals
  • Slowing pace of feeding or gets distracted more easily by surroundings
  • Holding food in their mouth
  • Fussing as you bring food towards them
  • Signalling a clear no e.g. head shake
  • Throwing food
  • Vomiting
  • Crying or ‘meltdown’

Interpreting and responding to your baby’s hunger and fullness cues also supports with implementing the ‘division of responsibility’ at mealtimes, a concept helpful to hold onto into mealtimes going forward which describes how mealtimes are a healthy division between parents providing; the routine, a balanced meal, the place to eat and children deciding; what, how much and in what order/way to eat the foods provided.

Make your families mealtimes, good times

The eating environment as a whole can influence baby’s mealtime satisfaction, attention span, stress levels (of baby and parents!) and eventually contribute to their learnt understanding or experience of eating.  

Starting as you mean to go on, by creating a calm and relaxed mealtime during weaning, as well as considering factors that can help your baby develop positive experiences around food is something definitely worth some thought. 

Top tips for positive mealtimes include:

  1. Create a calm environment – Try to avoid distractions e.g. television, screens or toys which may cause the focus to move easily away from food.  Having music on quietly in the background is okay, especially if this is something you are used to as a family at mealtimes, or you find helps keep you relaxed too.
  2. Make a clear mealtime routine – It can be helpful as you progress through weaning to maintain some consistency around mealtimes to help your baby’s understanding of the process.  This could include a gentle prompt that it’s time to eat, washing or wiping hands before sitting down in their highchair and giving a consistent visual cue that it’s a mealtime/ time for food, such as their bowl, spoon or food ready on the tray.
  3. Manage your stress – be mindful of your own stress or anxiety levels at mealtimes, even if this is unrelated to feeding itself (we all have challenging days!).  Anxiety and stress can be infectious, and your baby is able to interpret and pick up on your signs from your face and body language that you may be uneasy, nervous or unhappy (in the same way they can pick up the opposite emotions too!).  This in turn can influence their mealtime experience or willingness to eat.
  4. Use the power of positivity – there is evidence that ways of communicating including positive facial expressions e.g. smiling and tone of voice can support your baby to accept new foods during weaning.  Whilst it can be difficult to feel enthusiastic about feeding your baby at every mealtime, try to keep your game face on and find ways to show them you are enjoying food too.
  5. Role model – you will hear this advice regularly when discussing positive mealtimes for good reason.  Role modelling eating behaviours and sharing meals with your baby really helps them to pick up feeding skills and develop confidence with food.  They also learn and observe other positive experiences present at mealtimes, like socialising and language
  6. Be realistic – accepting there will be good days and bad days with feeding is important, as too often parents describe feelings of failure when it comes to weaning (or feeding in general).  Understanding that there will be challenging days, but that one cold day doesn’t make it winter, can be helpful to keep the pressure off!  It can also be helpful to remember the behaviours below are normal during weaning and do not have to impact negatively on the mealtime if you know to expect them during your baby’s weaning journey:
  • Acceptance of a food one day and rejecting it at the next exposure (and vice versa!)
  • Refusing food for days during illness, and having a reduced appetite ‘hangover’ for several more days after that
  • Playing with food a lot, but not actually eating it
  • Throwing food
  • Spitting food back out
  • Innate preference for certain foods and less so for others