I was traveling with friends last year and went to eat dinner at a restaurant in Cochin. At a nearby table there was a family—mother, father and a boy who looked about twelve. I noticed that the mother served the boy first, piling food on this plate as he kept saying enough. Have you noticed how common this habit of force feeding children is, amongst us Indians?

Parents feed children differently in different places. In western countries, children are encouraged to be independent and eat on their own as soon as they are able to. Parents put the children in a high chair so that the child can sit with the parents and eat with his/her fingers or a spoon or a fork. Of course they make a mess because little children don’t have full motor control. However, this is a part of growing up. I have seen two year olds eat beautifully with a fork without stabbing their tongue or mouth. I recently saw my friend’s eight month old baby eating a spear of asparagus. She didn’t know how to pull up the asparagus with her fingers as it got smaller, but she loved to eat it by herself. All her mother had to do was pull up a little bit more of the long stalk of the asparagus.

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In contrast, I have seen even six or seven year old Indian children who are hand fed by their mothers or grandmothers or ayahs. The child runs around, the mother runs behind the child begging, scaring, scolding the child to eat and finish the bowl of food. This habit of force feeding a child can lead to overweight or obesity.

Why does this matter anyway? The rate of diabetes is increasing fast among our families. In my family alone, there are only four adults who don’t have diabetes. Nobody feels pain from diabetes until they lose a foot or have a heart attack. So diabetes gets ignored. But the habits that can make one at risk for diabetes can start really young.

One of the downfalls of force feeding children is that it doesn’t allow the child to make decisions on what to eat, how much to eat and when to stop. As parents or caregivers, our responsibility only requires us to make sure there is healthy, nutritious food to eat for the kids to eat. Not allowing them to make a choice about what they eat and how much they eat can teach kids to overeat over time and not pay attention to the signals their bodies are giving out to stop eating.

Food habits that encourage kids to overeat, can lead to overweight, obesity and diabetes later on. Habits made in childhood last a long time. Overfeeding a child actually is teaching the child’s brain to ignore the feeling of fullness that comes from stomach signals. Teaching a child to listen to their own body is a valuable habit that will help them even when they are adults. I am always amazed by how much a kid can put away right before they are getting ready to grow taller. Even an eight month old will ask for more when they are hungry, or throw the spoon or food down when they are full.

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While diabetes used to be a disease of older people, due to overfeeding, lack of physical activity and too much screen time, soda, chips and fried foods eaten every day instead of sometimes, type 2 diabetes, is starting to be seen in children.

Even when children are breastfed, they know when they are full. They will turn away from the breast, go to sleep or go off to play. When we watch little kids feeding themselves, we can notice that they will stop eating and start playing with food as soon as they are full. Recently I saw a two and a half year old little girl, eat two idlis, sitting at the table with her older brother and take off like a rocket from the chair as soon as she was full. When the mother is feeding a child, the mother is looking at the bowl or plate of food to judge if the child is full, like a mother feeding a child formula in a bottle, and making sure the bottle is empty.

This is not to say feeding formula in a bottle or spooning food into a child’s mouth is bad. They both have a place when the children are very young, or if they have other health care needs that makes it a challenge for them to eat by themselves.

Graduating to a sippy cup, tumbler, spoon, fork or fingers as soon as the child is physically able, encourages a child to learn to eat themselves, and to obey signals from the stomach rather than an external signal like an empty plate or bowl.

So, next time you are eating dinner with your children, let them decide what they want to eat and how much. They will still grow and be okay. As my cousin recently said, “Why did I worry so much about how little my son eats? He always eats enough for his needs. I wish I had known this sooner”. There is absolutely no need to spoon feed or force feed children in any way.