Into the Mouths of Babes
This is the third guest post of our newest blogging candidate, Nomchelle. Today, we will vote on her inclusion.
At the danger of sounding like an overachieving mum, last week my 12-year-old, Alex, cooked dinner for himself and his younger brothers. It was pasta with sausage and tomato. He dished up enormous portions and they all sat down to eat. After a while, I noticed that my 10-year-old son, Harrison, had been carefully picking out his pasta and eating it, leaving all the sausage in the bowl. He explained that he was saving the best until last.
“Why don’t you eat your favourite bits first?” I suggested.
“Because then I would have to eat all the pasta on its own.”
“Well, you don’t have to eat all the pasta. You don’t have to finish it. You can just eat what you like.” I said.
Although I was kind and gentle with Harrison, this pisses me off. It’s irritating because it’s not the first time that we’ve had a conversation about not having to empty his plate. We remind them frequently, especially when they’re confronted by large portions. When they have friends for tea, I make a point of telling them that in this house nobody has to eat everything they’re given. We don’t tut or grumble when stuff gets thrown in the bin and, in fact, I am always leaving food myself. The clean plate rule, annoyingly, is coming from their Dad, with whom Alex and Harrison spend two nights in fourteen. Daddy, Harrison explained, says that they are not allowed pudding until they’ve eating everything on their plate. I’m not pissed off with Harrison, I’m pissed off with his father.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I know that by and large this technique is “normal” parenting, but I am hoping that my fellow fatties will have jumped ahead to my reasoning. When you instill in a child that he or she has to finish all the food on their plates — and especially when they’ve not chosen that portion themselves — you risk them going on to develop Empty Plate Syndrome (EPS).
A child, and presently adult, with EPS will eat every single morsel that is dished out to them whether by a parent, a partner, or an apathetic KFC employee. They will consume over the course of their lifetime absolutely masses of food that their body doesn’t actually want in the name of graciousness and habit. It’s likely that they will consistently override their natural full signals to the point where they can barely feel them at all, and turn over almost all portion choice to some outside source.
Of course, EPS isn’t the only reason that people become deaf to their body’s appetite signals, but it is one of them. And it’s completely counter to intuitive eating; when my husband and I embarked on our path to learn how to eat intuitively, one thing he battled with the most was his learned desire to see a cleared plate. It still troubles him sometimes a year or so into our journey.
So it pisses me off. I don’t want my children to suffer from EPC. In fact, as much as reasonably possible, I don’t want my children to have to adhere to food rules at all. Why should we eat savoury before sweet, for instance? Or three times a day? Or when the clock says so? Those of us who are travelling our own intuitive eating journeys know that this is all socially-constructed noise that can prevent us from hearing our own bodies. And if anyone is an expert on listening to their own bodies, it’s children. Sometimes it seems that the younger they are, the more we can learn from them. In fact, the person who has taught me the most about intuitive eating is my youngest son, Faraday.
Faraday was born a nice, chunky 8 pounds, 11 ounces, and from the outset he was exclusively breastfed.
Before I go on, I really feel like I want to clarify that I am not platforming a “breast is best” manifesto here or criticising those who formula feed. I do personally think that human milk is preferable for human babies, but I am also a mother, a sociologist, and a recent breastfeeding support worker, and I know that there are a whole load of legitimate reasons why a woman might not breastfeed. Essentially, in my opinion, it comes down to lack of support. Society is just not geared up to facilitate breastfeeding anymore; girls don’t see their mothers, aunts, and sisters doing it and therefore, wisdoms are lost. Throw in a multimillion dollar formula industry and shifts in societal expectations on women, and suddenly it’s not nature running the show anymore, much like with food in general.
Anyway, for six solid months Faraday fed from me and me alone (we tried him with a bottle of expressed milk once or twice, but since he hated it and since I was lucky enough not to have to leave him, we didn’t persist). Best practice for breastfeeding is now considered to be for mum to feed baby “on demand,” or responsively. She is taught to read hunger cues in the baby’s actions before the baby starts to cry, and to ignore the old advice of feeding once every X hours or for Y minutes a side.
Exactly like the intuitive eating that we strive to regain as adults, exclusively breastfed babies can eat as much as they want, whenever they want and then stop when they are full. And they always stop when they are full. You cannot overfeed a breastfed baby because they simply won’t take it; they either adjust their suckle to stop delivering milk, or they just kind of slip off, drunk on the good stuff. It’s interesting to note that in the whole time that he was just taking breastmilk, Faraday didn’t spontaneously fall in to any real clock-based routine. He had a vague pattern, but some days he’d want a lot of milk and some not so much. Some feeds were quick and some were two-hour “binges.” He just responded to his varying needs.
Faraday went on to breastfeed until 19 months (when he decided to stop), but at about 6 months we started introducing solids via the baby-led weaning (BLW) method. BLW is, for all intents and purposes, full intuitive eating for babies. Flowing right on from breastfeeding, as soon as the child shows an interest in food and is able to sit up and reach out, parents offer wholesome, real, family foods. Nothing is mashed or puréed, and, crucially, nothing is spoon-fed. The baby is responsible for selecting, manipulating, chewing (or gumming) the food in whatever quantities he or she wants.
Nobody cajoles the child into eating “just one more bite” or withholds one foodstuff as a reward for eating another. Mum and Dad are encouraged to simply trust their child to know and respond to what is correct for their body at any given time. Very young children can feed themselves all sorts of real foods, including meat; it’s amazing to watch a seven-month baby gnaw on a chicken leg! The fundamental idea behind BLW is that this mashing/spooning stage that we’ve come to rely on in relatively recent Western society is not only biologically unnecessary, but potentially detrimental to a child’s ability to listen to their own hunger cues and to select the foods that their bodies require. When Faraday carefully selected the broccoli and red meat from a full plate of food, for instance, it would be hard not to argue that he was seeking out and stocking up on iron in a very instinctive way.
Of course, like breastfeeding, baby-led weaning is very difficult when society doesn’t allow parents the resources to spend time with their very young children. I am aware that I am coming from a place of privilege here, in that we are (just about) wealthy enough to get by on my partner’s wage alone. That’s a rarity and I am very grateful that I have had the opportunity to watch Faraday’s process. At two-and-a-half, I can honestly say that he’s never eaten a mouthful that he didn’t actively want, nor has he gone hungry in the name of the clock. He’s a happy, active, naturally-petite child who eats a range of foods and drinks loads of water.
But more than all of that, he’s fully convinced me of something that always left a tiny, niggling doubt when I’ve just read it in books: your body really does know. It knows what food it needs, it knows when it needs it, and it knows how much to have. My older sons haven’t strayed too far from that track. I am hopeful that (notwithstanding their father’s influence) they’ll continue to more or less respond to their natural appetites. My husband and I require a little more nurturing and a little more practice, but Faraday has taught me that intuitive eating is deep down in all of us ready to be rediscovered.
The following are excellent resources for parents who are eager to equip their children with the tools to be able to eat intuitively:
- Ina May’s Guide to Breastfeeding by Ina May Gaskin
- Baby-Led Weaning by Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett
- Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming by Ellyn Satter