How Do I Know If My Child Is Full?

A Real Mom Asks:
“Our 16 month old daughter wants to eat ALL the time! She will try almost anything (which is a nice change of pace from her 4 1/2 year old brother who is in the picky phase), and gets a wide variety of fruits, veggies (at least 5 a day), lean meats, fish, yogurt, eggs, and limited dairy or processed foods except some organic baked goods. She has always been under the 10th percentile for weight and height, and is very physically active. We want to make sure we are giving her everything she needs to thrive and grow, while also giving her the right tools to have a healthy relationship with food. She rarely gives us fullness cues, and we have a hard time determining when to stop feeding her even after what we consider adult portions. We would appreciate your advice on how to approach this. Thanks!”
 
A Real Mom Dishes It Out:
Thanks again for submitting your question to Mom Dishes It Out. Remember, my answer is based on what I would do if I were in your kitchen. Every child is an individual, however, and should see a medical physician regularly for physicals and any additional concerns.
To start, congratulations on raising two wonderful children! As most parents know, when you add another personality—which means an additional plate and palate—to the table, it can get messy. Know that your mom (or dad!) instincts will usually carry you through as long as you remain relaxed about the situation.
It sounds to me like your daughter is doing a beautiful job of eating and feeding herself. As long as there are no noteworthy discrepancies between her height and weight on the growth chart, meaning both measurements are proportionate and fall around the same percentile, then you can rest easy knowing that your daughter is healthy in terms of nutrition. Looking forward, you’ll want to make sure she continues to follow a similarly balanced projectile in the coming months.
If there is a discrepancy, there may still be no cause for alarm. Rather, simply be aware of the possible scenarios and what they mean, and consider consulting a registered dietitian (www.eatright.org).
Height > Weight: One example is if a child is consistently in the 10th percentile for height and weight, and they drop to the 5th percentile for height during their next one to two check-ups. In this instance, the child may not be acquiring enough food to facilitate growth.
Height < Weight: On the flip side, a child’s height may remain the same while their weight increases. In this instance, more nutrition is being consumed than needed. (This can be especially problematic when referring to an older child.)
While your tot may be small, it sounds like she has an awesome appetite. This can be a mom’s dream come true! Let her eat. See if her fullness cues kick in. She may not feel full because she needs to eat more in order to grow more.
A few questions to ponder: think back to when your child was born. Was she able to feel full on breast milk or formula? Did you restrict her then? If she knew when to stop then, it is likely she will be able to figure it out again.
Of course, with all the concerns surrounding obesity, it can be scary for a parent to simply let their child feed themselves until they indicate that they feel full. Honestly though, I would just try it and see what happens. Give it two weeks. Since she’s so open to a range of ingredients, try preparing highly nutritious foods like veggies, fruits, chicken, fish, avocado and nut butters. See if this makes a difference.
My oldest son had a huge appetite as a little guy (and even ate to the point of throwing up a few times), but he has over time figured out what it feels like to be full, establishing his own limitations and determining his own hunger and fullness cues. He is now 5 ½ years old. Most days, he is not very hungry at all, but then again, there are also days when his eating is reflective of a 16 year old teen.
There are several reasons why my son’s nutritional intake may have shifted throughout the years. Maybe he became more mindful of his hunger and fullness cues. Maybe it’s because he wasn’t being controlled (yet not given complete and free range of his meals either), and so he was able to determine his own levels of satiation. Or maybe, hormones like ghrelin and leptin were previously imbalanced. The reason isn’t really significant. What is important when raising healthy, happy children is to give them a genuine sense of trust so that they can learn to internally regulate and ultimately have a positive relationship with food.
Below are five tips to help your child feel full in a nutritious and wholesome way. If you still have questions, feel free to e-mail me.
5 Tips to Help Your Hungry Child Feel Full!

  1. Pair with a protein. Carbohydrates alone at meal times make it difficult for even adults to feel full. Instead, try coupling carbohydrates with a protein and a fat to make sure your child is consuming the kinds of ingredients that promote satiety. For example, instead of just serving a bowl of pasta, use whole-wheat pasta and add chicken and cubed avocado.
  2. Let them love their food. As parents, encourage a positive relationship with food. If your child is a good eater, be proud! And remember, never label your child as good or bad, fat or skinny!
  3. Do not restrict, especially girls! Research reveals that daughters who are restricted at young ages are more likely to develop secretive and binge eating habits later. They also run a greater risk of obesity. Rather than restriction, teach mindful eating practices that account for internal hunger and fullness cues.
  4. Pass on processed; provide produce. Be sure to provide high nutrition foods while limiting processed foods that are sold in packages. Allow your children to eat and enjoy these items in small doses when they request it, but remember that saying “no” is okay at times too. (For more information on the use of the word “no” in the kitchen, check out my blog on “Am I restricting my child when saying no?”)
  5. Fill your kids with hugs. If you think your child is eating for a non-physical reason, try giving them hugs and more of your time, especially after meals. Ask your child to play a game, color a picture or play ball with you. Your child may be craving one-on-one time—not an extra serving to munch on.


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