toddler boy eating at home

How to know if your child is eating enough

Do you struggle with trusting your child’s appetite? Do you find yourself saying things like ‘one more mouthful’ or ‘you can get down from the table when you eat the rest of your chicken’ or variations of these? 

The key to understanding your child’s energy needs (basically the amount of food that they need to eat) lies in self-regulation. In this blog, I’ll explore what self-regulation means, how it can help you ensure your child is getting the right amount of food and most importantly help you to relax about food being left on the plate.

toddler girl eating pasta

In society, there’s a strong belief that parents understand their children’s appetites, hunger, and fullness better than the children themselves. This misconception can lead to well-intentioned but misguided efforts to control a child’s eating habits, mainly to encourage children to eat more than they want or need to at mealtimes. However, research shows that the vast majority of children, especially those under the age of 5 are very good at knowing how much food they need to eat. 

For example, babies, even in the first hours of life instinctively know how to crawl to the breast to feed and will stop feeding when they’re satisfied. They can’t tell us that they are hungry, they communicate with cues such as rooting for the breast. They also can’t tell us that they are full, but they communicate that feeling by stopping feeding and being content. As parents, we have to put our trust in this process for the first six months of life. 

So why do we suddenly lose this trust when we begin weaning?

I am deliberately not talking about bottle feeding in this process, not because I am unsupportive of bottle feeding. As bottle feeding is visual, we can see how much milk has been taken each time which means we tend to monitor volumes more than in breastfed babies. Having recommended volumes on formula packaging makes this process even harder to trust as parents often find themselves ‘aiming’ for certain volumes rather than trusting their baby to tell them how much milk they need.

Allowing children to listen to their bodies means they understand when they are hungry and when they are full. If we let them do this, they carry this skill with them throughout childhood and means they are more likely to grow into the body they were destined to have. If we as parents start getting involved and encouraging them to eat more, or to stop eating before they are satisfied we are more likely to create children who cannot listen to their body as they grow. 

This ability to listen to their bodies is essential for developing a healthy relationship with food throughout life. Children’s appetites will vary from meal to meal and day to day, which is perfectly normal. In fact, if you have a child that seems to eat loads one day then like a little bird the next, that’s actually a good sign and likely that they’re listening to their hunger and fullness cues. Remember – they’ll need these vital skills during growth spurts and when they’re unwell or recovering from illness. Trusting in your child’s self-regulation is crucial for maintaining a healthy relationship with food and ensuring that they grow correctly. 

As a parent, you might wonder how to tell if your child has eaten enough. There are two main indicators:

Satisfaction

Your child will either stop eating or explicitly tell you they are full. It’s as simple as trusting your child to know their own body (if someone else told you you weren’t full would you think they knew better than you)? 

Growth

Monitor your child’s growth on their growth chart. If they are following a consistent growth trajectory, it’s a sign that they are eating enough over time.

If you’re unsure how to begin supporting your child’s self-regulation, here are my three  top tips:

1. Establish a Routine

Aim for three meals a day (breakfast, lunch, dinner) and two snacks (mid-morning and mid-afternoon). An evening snack is optional if dinner is early. You should aim for these eating opportunities to be around 2 – 2.5 hours apart. This gives your child enough time to build an appetite but not too long that they’re hangry! 

Remember – hunger is normal! Nothing bad is going to happen if your child is hungry before their meal, in fact it’s a good thing and something they should grow up experiencing. If it’s something they aren’t currently used to, it may feel like an adjustment period as you implement a routine but in the long run it’ll be beneficial for all of you. 

Having a good routine means you can be confident that even if your child doesn’t eat much at one meal, you know there isn’t too long to go until the next time they eat; which means you can hopefully pull back on pressuring them to eat (another big piece of the puzzle!). 

2. Limit Milk

Try not to give more than around 400ml of milk per day, as excessive milk consumption can dampen appetite for meals. Milk is a high energy, high protein drink that may stop your child being hungry at mealtimes. Children regulate their appetite over several days so it’s not just a case of milk affecting the next meal, if overall intake is high it can affect the appetite in general. 

Large amounts of milk can also lead to low iron levels. 

If you’re currently giving much more, you can reduce it slowly over a number of days or weeks. If you’re still using bottles, reducing the volume and switching to a smaller teat to increase how long the bottle takes to drink can help too. 

3. Include Familiar Foods

There should always be one or two foods in a meal that you know your child enjoys. This way, if they claim to be full or uninterested, you can be confident that there was something available they would eat and their appetite will regulate itself. 

Understanding self-regulation is a game-changer in ensuring your child is eating enough. Trusting your child’s ability to understand and listen to their hunger and fullness is going to work wonders for helping them to build a healthy relationship with their food as they grow and become independent. 

By establishing routines and offering familiar foods, you can support your child in making their own choices about how much they need to eat. Remember, your child, if given the chance, will naturally eat to their appetite and know when they’ve had enough.

If you’d like more information or personalised guidance, you can reach out to me through my Instagram page (@TheEarlyYearsDietitian) or my website. Remember, you’re not alone on this journey, and there are ways to make mealtimes a positive experience for your child.

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