Invariably, during the Q and A after a parent workshop, a parent with crossed arms would say something like, “Well, the one bit rule works for us!” At which point, their spouse might roll their eyes, or chime in with, “It works for two of our kids, but for our middle child, that one bite becomes an epic battle.” (My favorite all-time parent description of dinner was ‘hostage negotiating.’) What these kinds of discussions illustrate is that pressure to eat is subjective, that is, felt differently by different children.

What some children feel as pressure (inviting pushback), others may not.

Children differ in their approach to (and experience with) food for many reasons

Children experience food and mealtimes differently due to: temperament, sensory and brain differences, past pressure to eat, a high need for autonomy, trauma history, food insecurity, current or past medical or anatomical challenges, anxiety, gross and fine motor skill differences, oral-motor challenges… the list is as endless as children are unique. (This fun study showed that, for infants and toddlers, the degree to which to they were drawn to new foods and new toys had some consistency.)

At the family table, this subjective experiencing of parent expectations may look like one child happily taking that bite and deciding they indeed love pasta Alfredo; meanwhile, a second child may reluctantly eat only a bite and perhaps be put off the rest of the meal; while the third child will battle and refuse, or choke down the pasta in tears.

Does pressure to eat help or harm?

I always tell parents, if you are doing something, perhaps asking the child to lick or taste a food, and they are relaxed, happy to do so, and they are otherwise doing well with eating, it’s probably not causing any harm. Carry on! (Though they’d probably do just as well or better without the one-bite rule.)

And, we may need to unpack for parents (and ourselves) what we mean by “working.” If it “works” to get one bite choked down in tears, are parents interested in exploring other ways of approaching food? Many parents may think their only choice is to make children eat, or it’s a free-for-all where they either will eat nothing, or only their favorites, forever. Responsive feeding and responsive feeding therapy offer another option.

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Reference: Moding, K. J., & Stifter, C. A. (2018). Does Temperament Underlie Infant Novel Food Responses?: Continuity of Approach–Withdrawal From 6 to 18 Months. Child development89(4), e444-e458.