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Responsive feeding and early childhood development

7 mins
Responsive Feeding

Caregivers are influential in shaping a baby’s behaviours

Childhood weight and obesity is a topical and concerning issue, especially as over a fifth of UK children start school either overweight or obese.1 In Ireland 1 in 4 children are overweight or obese.2

A large body of evidence has shown that accelerated weight gain in the first 2 years of life, independent of birth weight and parental weight, is associated with an increased risk of overweight and obesity in childhood, and in later life.3–6 Parents and caregivers are influential in shaping their children’s behaviours, including food preferences, consumption and even weight gain.7

Responsive feeding nurtures a baby’s natural appetite response. So, if fed responsively in the first two years of life, they should learn how to control how much they eat and recognise feelings of hunger and fullness independently.

Responsive feeding is a reciprocal relationship between infant and caregiver to communicate feelings of hunger and satiety through behaviour8

During infancy, children and their caregivers learn to interpret each other’s communication signals. This forms the basis of responsive parenting, and ultimately responsive feeding.

Breastfeeding is a naturally responsive way of feeding as there is no set measure of milk at each feed. However, when breastfeeding is not possible, bottle-feeding is still compatible with responsive feeding.

Share the leaflet below with your mums to help them better understand their baby and develop responsive feeding routines.

You can also watch these videos on responsive feeding cues, to help parents learn what their baby is trying to tell them and to help them understand the most common cues to look for when feeding on demand.

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Responsive Feeding Clinical Paper Summary - Prevention of Childhood Obesity

Infants fed from bottles may gradually lose their ability to self-regulate and ultimately gain weight faster than those infants who are breastfed – as baby led feeding is practised more regularly this way.2

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How to breastfeed a baby

Childhood weight and obesity is a topical and concerning issue, especially as over a fifth of UK children start school either overweight or obese.1

  1. Public Health England., 2016. Child Obesity. Available: Accessed: 30th September 2016

  2. A Healthy Weight for Ireland. Available at:link Accessed September 2018.

  3. Schwartz C, Scholtens PAMJ, Lalanne A, et al. 2011. Development of healthy eating habits early in life. Review of recent evidence and selected guidelines. Appetite. 57 (3), 796-807.

  4. Boots SB, Tiggemann M, Corsini N, Mattiske J., 2015. Managing young children’s snack food intake. The role of parenting style and feeding strategies. Appetite. 92, 94-101.

  5. DiSantis KI, Hodges EA, Johnson SL, Fisher JO., 2011. The role of responsive feeding in overweight during infancy and toddlerhood: a systematic review. Int J Obes. 35, 480-492.

  6. Li R, Magadia J, Fein SB, Grummer-Strawn LM., 2012. Risk of Bottle-feeding for Rapid Weight Gain During the First Year of Life. Arch PediatrAdolesc Med. 166 (5), 431-436.

  7. Baird J, Fisher D, Lucas P, Kleijnen J, Roberts H, Law C., 2005. Being big or growing fast: systematic review of size and growth in infancy and later obesity. BMJ. Doi:10.1136/bmj.38586.411273.EO

  8. Black M 2011


The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recommended that pregnant women and new mothers be informed on the benefits and superiority of breastfeeding – in particular the fact that it provides the best nutrition and protection from illness for babies. Mothers should be given guidance on the preparation for, and maintenance of, lactation, with special emphasis on the importance of a well-balanced diet both during pregnancy and after delivery. Unnecessary introduction of partial bottle-feeding or other foods and drinks should be discouraged since it will have a negative effect on breastfeeding. Similarly, mothers should be warned of the difficulty of reversing a decision not to breastfeed. Before advising a mother to use an infant formula, she should be advised of the social and financial implications of her decision: for example, if a baby is exclusively bottle-fed, more than one can (400 g) per week will be needed, so the family circumstances and costs should be kept in mind. Mothers should be reminded that breast milk is not only the best, but also the most economical food for babies. If a decision to use an infant formula is taken, it is important to give instructions on correct preparation methods, emphasising that unboiled water, unsterilised bottles or incorrect dilution can all lead to illness.