Have you ever been feeding your young child and they get upset, so you give them more food in hopes they quiet down? Your child is screaming crying at the grocery store, so you give them a candy bar and they miraculously become perfect angels. Especially the non-verbal baby- they start crying for some reason so you just give them more food because you think it will stop them from getting upset.
Or have you ever used food as a reward? Maybe your child is mad they have to do something, so you promise them you will buy them candy if they behave well, and they immediately jump up and down for joy!
These are all examples of how we train children to use food as comfort or reward. Is there anything wrong with this? Well, with the outbreak of childhood obesity and eating disorders, it definitely is worth taking a look.
So many of us turn to food for comfort as adults. When you feel bad, who doesn't want an ice cream sundae to cheer you up? Or a huge cheesy burrito? By trying to give our children more food when they are visibly crying, fussing and whining, does that create a pattern of emotional eating?
It can turn into overeating habits, or restricted eating. Eating disorders are often time the result of control, and if a child has no control they use food to gain it back. A parent can control their child as much as they want, but food is the one thing a child can gain control of- a parent can't technically force food down a child's throat- it is up to a child. I'm not going to go into eating disorders in detail here, but you get the idea.
As a child counselor, I use behavior charts and behavior modification for children to curb certain behaviors and to help kids with ADHD. When I work with parents on the reward systems to use at home, I tell them to not use food as a reward if possible. No trips to McDonalds or a chocolate cupcake. Tangible items like stickers or trinkets are better rewards. If you use food as a reward, then kids will learn to associate food with reward/punishment and can set up a pattern of this into adulthood.
So when your baby is whining and we shove food in their mouths, are they getting the message "here, eat more, it will make you feel better?"
Assuming a baby has already eaten their meal, what could we do next time, considering they can't talk yet? Maybe ask ourselves if they are tired, put them down for a nap. Or if they are full or bored from eating, are they ready to play instead?
I know when you are at home and the phone is ringing, you have clothes to fold and your child all of sudden has a meltdown- it's easy for you to just give them a snack bar in hopes they calm down long enough so you can finish your chores. It is sometimes hard to take the time to wonder what is going on with them and calm them down with limit setting and behavior modification. But quick solutions to problems (food rewards), are not really solving the issue at hand (unless of course they really are hungry).
When our children are crying and acting out, instead of giving them food to quiet them what could we do? We can be little sleuths and figure out that maybe they are tired or bored or, if they are truly upset about something, try to take the time to figure out the underlying cause instead of quickly shoving them some Goldfish.
Maybe say, "It looks like you were mad at your toy car when you threw it across the room, but toys are not for throwing. If you want to throw something, you can throw a ball outside." (See the Limit Setting post here) Or after a meltdown and you can tell it's nap time say, "It looks like it's quiet time now, so let's go get ready to take a nap," and so forth.
What do you think of giving food as a reward or to quiet down a fussy child/baby? Are there certain times you think it's okay and not okay? What has worked for you?