One of the biggest questions I get asked across social media EVERY DAY, is the question of portion size – “How much should my baby be eating?”
I know it’s something many parents really find confusing, and so I wanted to cover it in detail and hopefully reassure any parents who are worrying about this!
Portion guidelines for young babies…
When it comes to portion sizes for babies, the most important thing to remember is that ALL BABIES ARE VERY DIFFERENT. Additionally, there are no specific recommended portion sizes or guidelines for children under 1 year of age.
The reason for this is that babies’ appetites hugely vary. Some babies take to solids straight away and gobble up lots of foods right from day one. But others aren’t keen initially and may take a longer time to accept and enjoy solid foods throwing foods away or just not eating much at mealtimes at all. Both of these scenarios are completely “normal” and so it’s not helpful to recommend SPECIFIC portion sizes for young babies.
What if my baby isn’t eating enough?
The early days of weaning are really about LEARNING rather than actually eating (more on this below), and milk will still continue to be their primary source of nutrition until 10-12 months. However, many parents find it worrying that their baby might not be eating enough.
If you’re concerned about the amount your little one is eating, there are a few things you can check/do in the first instance. These include:
- Get baby’s weight checked regularly with your baby’s health visitor, so you know they are growing well
- Check for plenty of wet and dirty nappies, so you know that baby is eating and drinking enough
- Make sure your little one has plenty of energy for running around and isn’t super sleepy and lethargic during their waking hours
- Visit the GP if you’re at all concerned that they aren’t eating enough food/milk
- Offer baby a fairly structured routine around milk and solid foods to allow them to build up an appetite and know when to expect solids each day.
- Try to stick with the mantra – You choose what to offer, and let them choose how much to eat at mealtimes.
If you’re finding that your baby is off to a slower start with weaning, my factsheet about babies not taking to weaning may help with some practical tips and reassurance.
What about babies over 1 year of age?
For babies over the age of 1, there are some guidelines for infant portion sizes that offer a very general range by which to follow when offering solids to baby. Again, this is just a guideline and some babies may eat more and others much less. I’ve put together a really comprehensive factsheet all about portion sizes for young children, so do check that out.
Varying appetites is completely normal…
Just as with us as adults – we all have varying and individual appetites, and children and babies are just the same.
Some babies like to graze and eat small amounts more often and other babies will eat larger meals that you wouldn’t possibly think would fit in their tiny tummies – so try not to compare how much your little one eats with other babies either!
Additionally, babies’ appetites change ALL THE TIME. This is something I try to emphasise A LOT, but still something that can make parents very anxious too, especially at times when babies appetites are very low.
Why do babies’ appetites change and how to respond?
It’s likely that if your baby is – unwell, teething, tired, too hungry, happy, full, bored, excited, too hot, too cold etc etc (you get the picture) then this will affect their appetite.
It’s perfectly normal for babies’ appetites to go up and down all the time – from meal to meal and from day to day.
Ideally, it’s important to respect the fact that your little one doesn’t want to eat when they show signs – something we call “responsive feeding” – by accepting cues from baby such as clamping their mouth shut, crying and pushing the spoon away as “not hungry”.
Avoid force feeding baby, pushing the spoon in their mouth, coaxing baby into eating or making mealtimes become really pressured (easier said than done, I appreciate!)
Instead, here are some things that can help:
- Set a good routine around meals and milk/snacks for baby so they know when to expect food and have multiple opportunities to eat throughout the day
- Have a look at what your little one eats over a WEEK – not day to day and take things like illness, teeth etc into account when they have a low food intake on a few days
- Try and ensure that your little one isn’t too hungry or too full up for their mealtime. If they’ve just had a large milk feed or have been grazing on snacks throughout the day, it’s unlikely that they will be hungry for a large dinner.
- Role model as much as you can by sitting down to eat similar foods at similar times to your little one. They will enjoy the mealtime so much more if you’re a part of it and this can often encourage them to eat more foods too.
- Try to offer foods with minimal distractions around. If baby can see toys/TV etc then it might not be an ideal time, as these things can serve as a distraction and stop the focus being on the food and the mealtime.
- Remember to listen to cues from baby and try to think about the phrase: “you decide what baby eats and let them decide how much!”
The two below scenarios are questions I get asked ALL the time!! And so hopefully some of my feedback and thoughts on these might help parents to feel a little more confident about feeding their own babies in these situations
“My baby just grazes at mealtimes – what should I do?”
Quite often I have parents write to me to say that they are worried that their little one hardly eating anything. This might be at the very start of weaning when baby is just exploring those new tastes or it might be later on in weaning when parents are comparing their babies to other friend’s babies who gobble everything up.
As I’ve already mentioned, it’s not a good idea to compare babies as they will all be very different in terms of how much they eat day to day.
Again, to emphasise – All babies are VERY different.
The early days of weaning – what to expect
Additionally, those early days of weaning are literally about TINY TASTES, not getting huge amounts of food in, so give yourself some slack and let baby simply explore the foods you’re offering in whatever way they want.
If you are concerned about how much baby is eating after their initial first tastes of foods (and possibly drinking), it’s super important to get baby weighed regularly to make sure they are growing properly and following the right pattern of growth for them. Your health visitor should be able to talk you through the growth chart so you can see if baby is growing well.
However, there are some things you can do as well, that might help if your little one isn’t eating much:
- Try to establish a good structure around mealtimes so baby knows roughly when to expect solids and when to expect a milk feed.
- Try to offer a baby with a small appetite food little and often, rather than three larger meals
- Keep an eye on baby’s milk intakes as sometimes babies can fill up on milk and refuse solids. Try to leave a gap of roughly an hour before offering solids after a milk feed (remembering that all babies are different).
- Role model and try to eat with your baby so that they can see you and learn from your eating and enjoying a wide variety of solid foods.
- Use meal and snack times to top baby up on extra energy and nutrients whenever possible. For example, add peanut butter to porridge, olive oil to sauces and cheese to top dishes.
- Try to keep mealtimes light and fun for baby as much as possible. The more pressured and angst-y they get, the less willing little ones will be to eat, so try and keep them happy occasions.
- Get them involved in foods by reading books, playing with food toys and getting them to help with chopping/mixing/serving as soon as they are able
- Expose little ones to a variety of foods, even if it’s just visually – fruits and veg on the table, used during play or what they can see others eating day to day. Let them play with foods at mealtimes too, it’s all a positive step.
- Remember to respond to cues that baby doesn’t want more and avoid constantly trying to override this with “just one more” type encouragement
- Look at what your little one is eating over a whole week, rather than at one meal or during one single day.
My baby doesn’t stop eating – is this normal?
This is actually something I get asked about quite regularly. It’s a tricky one, as general advice is that babies are able to regulate their own appetites really well and so we don’t really need to restrict what they are eating.
However, I know myself that some children, on some occasions will just go on eating the more food you put in front of them without seemingly getting full up! This can be worrying, and I know I’ve had situations with Raffy where I have had to limit meals because I know the more I offer, the more he will eat.
Firstly in these scenarios it’s important to look at the context – is this something that’s happening ALL the time, or is it a one off? If it’s a one off, baby could be catching up due to a low appetite a few days or weeks before, so it’s good to let them go with the flow a bit more on those days.
If it’s happening all the time and at most mealtimes, it MIGHT be that your little one isn’t understanding their hunger and fullness signals very well yet or regulating their appetite very well either.
There is some research which shows that some children aren’t brilliant at regulating their own appetites and may therefore need a helping hand from their parents.
Helping babies to follow their appetite cues
So, what can you do if your little one is eating a lot and doesn’t seem to have an off switch? Here are some tips and advice based on my own knowledge around the area of nutrition.
- Listen to any cues your little one shows of being full – pushing food away, turning their head or just not wanting to eat – recognise these as internal cues from baby and try to respond accordingly right from the beginning of weaning.
- Talk to baby (even from an early age) about how their tummy feels – “Are you full?” (rubs tummy). “Have you finished?” (pushes plate away).
- Try to be consistent with how you respond to their cues. For example, taking the plate away when asking “are you finished?” This can help them to learn that that’s what happens when they’re finished.
- Try to teach them signs of hunger and fullness in this way, even before they can communicate properly. We actually encouraged Raffy to do a “finished” sign very early on in weaning to help with this.
- Try and slow down the pace of eating by:
- introducing plenty of finger foods which can take baby longer to eat
- communicating with baby throughout the meal – smiles & conversation can all help, and also help make the mealtimes social and enjoyable occasions for baby too
- Eating yourself so baby spends time watching you eat too
- Offer little sips of water alongside the meal
- Offer plenty of nutrient rich options which also contain some fibre – wholegrains and plenty of fruits and veggies
- Offer a variety of foods and textures within each meal to allow baby to spend time exploring new foods and textures, rather than just gobbling up familiar ones.
- Start with a smaller portion than you usually would offer and allow baby to come back for seconds, if they want more. That way you can break their usual portion up into two – allow baby to finish the first plate or bowl first – before going for more. This also helps to slow down the pace of the meal and baby might think they are getting more.
- Before offering extras check they are hungry and that it isn’t just the case that they can see the food in front of them that’s making them want to eat. Try talking to them about if they are hungry, or distracting them with something else first.
Just to reiterate, this is ONLY advice for babies who have an insatiable appetite. The most important thing is to listen to their own signs of fullness and willingness to eat and to speak with a GP or a HV if you’re concerned about their weight or health at all.
I hope you’ve found this blog on portions helpful. For more on all things weaning your baby, you can buy my book How To Wean Your Baby. And for more on portion sizes for young children, and feeding toddlers, my new book, How To Feed Your Toddler is available to pre-order now.