Appetites & Appestats

Let’s rewind to when our daughter was 3 months old. I mentioned that she was a pretty colicky baby. She’d cry/fuss/whine on and off all day long. She’d cry during her baths. She’d cry during play time. She’d cry during hugs and kisses.

Worst of all, for me–her mother–she’d cry during feedings. But this wasn’t always the case. I made it to be the case, with the help of a few people with good intentions but bad advice.

Everyone cringes at the sound of a crying baby… and everyone wants to help solve the problem of a crying baby. So, when our daughter cried, I was told that she was hungry. I was told to nurse lying down. I was told to supplement. I was told to start her on solids. I was told to feed her more during the day (once, I actually counted and I was up to 15 feeds a day).

Fortunately, I didn’t supplement (ever) or start solids (till she was 6 months). She’s been exclusively breastfed. I did, however, feed her more and more and more and more… even when she clearly didn’t want it. I was exhausted by all the crying and wanted a solution as much as everyone else. I started believing that I was starving my child and needed to feed her more and more often. Those days, she’d be done eating within 5 minutes. So, when we’d sit in the rocking chair, I’d feed her, and even when turned her head away or started fussing, I’d pull her face towards me and force her to take it. I shudder at the memory of those days. Poor baby.

We had started out with a positive breastfeeding relationship, and it had turned into this… I had started dreading feeding her. I finally made a same day appointment with our pediatrician. I was on the verge of tears as I explained the situation to the doctor. “She’s so fussy… she doesn’t nurse longer than a few minutes… Her stomach looks so small…”

The doctor looked at the weight-growth chart and said, “Look at the numbers. How’s her growth? Excellent.” He must have said this about 6 times during the appointment. He wanted it to sink in. He said that by now, many moms would have switched to formula but that wasn’t the answer in our case.

I left his office feeling much, much stronger. I had made up my mind to stop listening to people’s damn advice and just follow my heart and my baby’s cues.

I started feeding her with no less than 2 hours in between (as was recommended by our doctor). The time slowly increased, as I started feeding her when she woke up from naps, once before bedtime, and a couple times a night. She started eating longer (surprise!) because she actually had a chance to get hungry and my body actually had a chance to produce more milk.

The best part about the change was that our breastfeeding relationship significantly improved. I started listening to her. I even showed my husband. I fed her calmly and when she turned her face away, I stopped. She and I both left the chair happy.

I began looking forward to our nursing sessions, where I could hold her close and play with her ears, hair, arms, legs, while she gulped down the milk.

Just as I start her bedtime routine when I see her sleepy cue (rubbing of the eyes), I stop feeding her at her “I’m full” cue (turning her face away).

This cue has a name: “appestat.”

According to Karin Knight’s and Tina Ruggiero’s The Best Homemade Baby Food on the Planet:

Recent research shows that infants are born with an instinct, referred to as their appestat, that sends a “stop eating” signal to the part of the brain that controls appetite. Trusting this inborn knowledge of how much food will satisfy your baby’s appetite lays the foundation for good eating habits. Infants and toddlers who follow their hunger and satiety cues, eating only as much as their bodies need for good health, develop habits of moderation that should last a lifetime.

0511-0902-0418-3906_black_and_white_cartoon_of_a_baby_throwing_food_in_his_moms_face_clipart_imageEven when she’s sitting in her high chair, I think of this advice. It’s so tempting to want to empty the small bowl of food, but I stop when she wants to stop. When she purses her lips tightly, I finish off the bowl for her.

I know it’s easy to trust a baby’s instinct now, but what about when she’s older?

As important as it is to let your child judge how much food she wants, it can be one of the most difficult things for a parent to do. Many parents tend to give infants and toddlers larger portions than necessary–and then expect them to finish all the food on their plates.

And this has severe repercussions:

If a child’s natural appestat breaks down because she is frequently encouraged to eat when she is full, feeding problems can develop, and determining when and how much to eat may become a battle between parent and child. To keep this from happening, always start with small portions, and then let your little one tell you in her own way if she wants more.

Our daughter’s colic faded away gradually, as our doctor said it would.  Part of me feels that she may have even cried more than otherwise because I kept force feeding her.

We now nurse about 6-7 times a day with solid food for breakfast and dinner. She’s still a fast nurser, and some days she eats more solids than others.

The point is, I always feed off her cues (pun intended).

Leave a comment: How old’s your child and what’s his/her “I’m full” cue?


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