Why parents should use responsive feeding with their babies

Claire McCarthy, MD

Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Follow me on Twitter @drClaire

The habits we learn early can stay with us for a lifetime — which is why it’s better to learn good habits early, not bad ones. This is especially true with eating habits. More and more, research shows that overweight babies grow into overweight children, who grow into overweight adults. One of the very best ways to prevent obesity is to start before they are two years old, preferably right at birth.

That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics really wants parents to know about responsive feeding.

Most parents feel better when their baby eats more — and eats on a predictable schedule. It’s comforting and reassuring. It helps parents feel certain that their baby has had enough to eat. It also makes it easier to organize the day or give instructions to babysitters. But when we push babies to eat more than they want, or to eat when they aren’t hungry, it can teach them bad habits that put them at higher risk of obesity.

It’s really important that babies eat when they are hungry and eat only as much as they need. That’s where responsive feeding comes in. Responsive feeding is learning your baby’s cues for hunger, and for being full, and responding appropriately to those cues.

Here are some signs that a baby might be hungry:

  • she puts her hands in or near her mouth
  • she makes sucking noises
  • she puts her hands on her belly
  • she is more active, moving her hands and feet
  • she cries — but this is a late sign, often coming after the earlier signs didn’t bring food.

Parents should respond warmly and promptly to these signs, and should let the baby stop eating once she’s full. Signs of being full include:

  • stopping and starting feeding frequently
  • spitting out or ignoring the bottle or breast
  • unlatching from the breast
  • turning the head away
  • slowing down, or falling asleep.

If a baby is showing these signs, parents should stop feeding, even if the baby has eaten less than usual, or less than the parent would like them to eat. That way, the baby learns to listen to her hunger cues and stop eating when she’s not hungry anymore, habits that can help keep her at a healthy weight for life.

If a parent is worried that their baby isn’t getting enough to eat, or isn’t growing well enough, the best thing to do is call the doctor and make an appointment. At the appointment, the baby can be weighed and examined to check for any problems. If there are problems, the doctor and parents can make a plan to address them and get the baby back on track. If there aren’t any, parents can feel comfortable listening to and following the baby’s cues.

The bottom line for parents: you provide, your baby decides.


  1. Dan Musinguzi

    Great post, Claire McCarthy. Thank you.

  2. Ravi

    My two daughters, elder one is not eating well, she ignores food. Younger one is only 12 days old. Sometimes, she could not able to take mother’s milk. She is always in sleep.

    • Mimi

      It would be good to see a Lactation consultant if your 12 day old is not wanting to nurse. Ask about a tongue and lip tie. Make sure to tickle their feet while eating and it helps to have them just in a diaper and tickle them while they’re eating. Good luck momma!

    • Claire McCarthy

      You should talk to your doctor about your newborn.

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