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Positive Parental Feeding: How does it work?


Positive Parental Feeding: How does it work?

Parents’ behaviour – notably their feeding style and feeding practices –profoundly influences the development of children’s eating habits. Through support and encouragement, positive parental feeding can set children on the road to healthy eating right from the start.

Parents are influential in shaping children’s food choices and the formation of children’s eating habits. Children’s food choices and eating behaviours are clearly influenced by parents’ own behaviours. Young children are dependent most of the time on their parents or caregivers to select and prepare their meals and snacks. Parents continue to influence what and how children eat as they grow up, not only through their control of the foods children can access but also through their modelling and support of certain eating behaviours that are culturally accepted within the family.

Feeding style – the overall attitude and emotional context that parents create around their child during times of eating can profoundly affect the child’s eating behaviours.  Parental feeding styles can be categorised according to the demands and controls that parents put in place for their children’s eating, and parents’ level of involvement.

  1. The ‘authoritative’ feeding style is characterised by reasonable nutritional demands and structure, as well as sensitivity to the child’s needs.
  2.  By setting clear limits alongside warmth and explanation, parents help their children learn about food, and set the foundations for their healthy food choices. Children whose parents have adopted a supportive and informative approach to feeding, with education and choice, are more likely to have good energy intake regulation and avoid under- and over-eating.
  3. Conversely, the ‘indulgent’ feeding style – used by highly responsive parents who provide largely free access to foods, and the ‘authoritarian’ style – used by highly demanding but low responsive parents, have been associated with less healthy eating behaviours in children.

Certain feeding practices can have an impact on children’s self-regulation

Feeding practices – specific behaviours that parents use to get their children to eat – include restricting certain foods, using food as a reward, and pressuring their child to eat. Parents may see restriction as a way of limiting the amount of unhealthy food their child eats. However, parental restriction is positively associated with children’s desire for the restricted foods, tendency to over-eat and adiposity.

Children whose parents use food as a reward, either for eating another food or for good behaviour, are more likely than others to eat when they’re not hungry.

Pressure to eat – when parents insist on their child eating more or repeatedly prompt the child to eat even when he or she is not hungry – has been linked with fussy eating behaviour, such as eating fewer fruits and vegetables.

Both maternal and paternal factors are important influences and, combined, seem to have a profound effect on the child’s uptake of nutritional habits.

Parental knowledge and culture may influence the adoption of adequate feeding behaviours that impact on their child’s diet.  Parental knowledge and attitudes about what is healthy, influence the food choices they offer their child. However, the impact of parents’ nutritional knowledge has so far attracted little research interest and warrants further investigation.

Parents are role models and their actions influence their children’s behaviours.

Positive role modelling has been shown to improve child eating practices, leading to significant health benefits and preventing undesirable eating practices. The overall quality of the parent’s diet influences the quality of their child’s diet. Children whose parents eat a greater number of healthy foods, such as fruit and vegetables, are likely to eat more of these healthy foods themselves.

Children’s daily mean energy intake is also related to that of their parents. This reflects the food available in the home, food preferences and habits of the parents, as well as the family’s culture of eating that is modelled in the home.

Parents are ideally placed to steer their children’s eating in the right direction. They can positively influence and establish family norms around meal and snack patterns – including sitting down to regular, frequent family meals.

By being positive role models, parents are instilling eating habits that their child is likely to carry into adult life.


Source: Danone Institute International

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