Some infants recognize, respond to social eating cues

04/30/04

UMHS study suggests some babies more in tune to momís behavior at meals

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Mealtime is a nightmare, the baby won't eat what's on his highchair, and instead he seems to grab for whatever mom and dad have on their plates. For many parents it's a familiar and frustrating story.

But while parents may describe their baby as a difficult eater or an overeater, it could be just a sign that the child is more tuned in to the eating habits of those around him.

A new study by University of Michigan Health System researchers looked at the eating behaviors of babies who were described by their mothers as difficult eaters or overeaters and compared them to similar children whose mothers did not report problems during meals. Results of the pilot study will be presented May 1 at the Pediatric Academic Societies' annual meeting in San Francisco.

The difficult eaters and overeaters were more likely to eat when their mother handled their food. And the more mom touched the food, the more likely baby was to feed himself or herself. This same relationship was not found in children who were not difficult eaters or overeaters.

"We know the way human beings eat is not regulated by whether you're hungry as much as by social cues in the environment: You eat lunch because it's noon or because you want to take a break or your friends are going out," says study author Julie Lumeng, M.D., clinical instructor in the Department of Pediatrics at U-M Medical School. "This study suggests maybe there are some babies who are much more tied in to those social cues than others. Maybe these kids are much more cued in to how people around them are eating. With the obesity epidemic, that could be significant as these infants grow up."

As part of the Michigan Family Study, a longitudinal study of infant development, families were videotaped in their home during a normal feeding when the infant was 15 months old. Mothers filled out a questionnaire describing their baby's eating behavior. From this group, the researchers looked specifically at eight children whose mothers had identified them as difficult feeders and eight children whose mothers said they were overeaters. These groups were matched to 16 babies who were not problem eaters. All the babies were growing normally and had no underlying medical problems.

Watching the videotaped feeding, the researchers marked every time the mothers handled the food or fed the babies a bite and every time the babies fed themselves a bite. They also looked at how the babies behaved and ate during fussy moments.

Babies who were difficult eaters or overeaters were more likely to feed themselves after their mother handed them bites or handled their food. But among the controls, there was no link between the mothers handling the food and the babies eating.

"It's not as simple as saying that mothers who think their babies are difficult feeders are handling the food more and hovering over the high chair tray with a jar of baby food. It's not that the mother is trying to feed the child more; it's that the child who is a difficult eater is much more likely to feed himself when his mother is there," says Lumeng, who is also a research investigator for the U-M Center for Human Growth and Development.

During fussy moments, babies were less likely to eat. But the babies continued to feed themselves bites at random times. While babies who were not fussy gradually slowed their eating over time, the fussy babies did not show those signs of becoming full. This could indicate a link between emotions and eating, similar to the comfort eating of many adults.

While the study does not suggest any specific behaviors parents can model to make mealtime easier, Lumeng suggests mothers should trust their instincts and know that their baby might be more tied in to the parents' behavior during meals.

"Infants are really hard wired to want what you are eating. If part of the difficulty of the feeding is that mom's eating BBQ chicken and the baby's getting squash and rice, the answer is to let the baby try a bite of BBQ chicken. Some of these kids that mothers perceive as difficult eaters may just have a natural inclination to eat what they see their mother eat or handle or prepare," Lumeng says.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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