Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Bring On the Taties, Bring on the Bread: Feeding, Eye Contact, and All That

“Bring on the taties, bring on the bread-- Won’t somebody get this baby fed!” Feeding hungry babies is a universal task of childrearing. Before they reach the toddler period, babies get frantically hungry and seem to think that only desperate crying will bring them anything to eat. Parents and other caregivers sometimes feel that they spend most of their time in feeding, and sympathize with mother and father birds confronted with wide-open beaks every time they return to the nest.

Obviously, feeding enough of the right things, in the right amounts and at the right times, is essentially to babies’ very survival, as well as to normal physical growth and development. The physical effects of feeding are so important and so obvious that it’s easy to forget that much happens during feeding other than transferring food from the outside of the baby to the inside. Studies of preterm infants have shown a number of factors that affect feeding and digestion even in very tiny babies who cannot suck and must be tube-fed-- these include the experience of smelling the mother’s milk, the experience of sucking a pacifier while being tube-fed, and the experience of being fed during a period of activity rather than when deeply asleep (all of these increase growth rate).

Even the youngest babies are actively engaged in the experience of feeding and are paying attention to events that they connect with being fed. This is a simple but powerful type of learning-- the kind Pavlov called classical conditioning-- in which the babies learn to expect one event to follow another one. More and more complicated learning builds on these early feeding experiences, until the hungry one-month-old who quieted when Mother began to undo her blouse becomes the one-year-old who tries to unbutton those buttons herself.

All those moments of learning are closely connected with social and emotional development. Except for the unlucky baby who has to make do with a propped bottle or pureed food in a bottle with a big hole in the nipple, infants almost always experience feeding as an interaction with another person. It’s an interactive experience of communication with a caregiver who does a lot of the physical work of providing food-- but who ideally does this in response to the baby’s communications of wanting to eat or wanting to stop. Both parent and baby use their best communicative skills to do this job. They both use their eyes to gaze at or look away from the other person or the food being offered, as well as putting out their hands to control a spoon or a bottle and their voices to show approval or protest. The baby wants food but may like some foods better than others, and prefers certain feeding rhythms; as he or she experiences a more satisfied appetite, there may be changes toward slower consumption or stronger preferences or avoidances.

These facts mean that ideally babies and caregivers have many sessions of practicing communicating with each other about a topic that is of great interest to both of them. It’s fun to eat when you’re hungry, and it’s fun to see your healthy baby consuming the food you’ve offered, so both of them are likely to find feeding time pleasurable and to associate that pleasure with their communication and social interaction. However, if a baby is sick or developmentally delayed, and if the caregiver is worried, depressed, afraid of wasting food, frightened, or exhausted, neither of them will have much fun in the feeding situation, and they will miss a major chance to learn to enjoy their interactions. They may not advance well in their abilities to communicate with each other, either about feeding or about other important things.

When parents and babies are not doing well together, they need support that pays attention to both adult and child needs and abilities, but they do not always get this even when intentions are good. A few years ago, I observed a program for adolescent mothers and their babies. There had been some concerns about neglect in the case of each participant, and the babies were receiving intervention in the form of supportive day care, while the mothers attended classes and discussion groups. The highlight of the day was supposed to be lunch, with each mother feeding her baby. The babies had high chairs and plenty of food provided. BUT--- nobody had remembered that it was important for the mothers and babies to be able to look at each other’s faces in order to communicate. There were no chairs for the mothers! Each young woman stood in front of her baby and bent over awkwardly to spoon the food into the baby’s mouth. The babies had to look up and away from the spoon to see their mothers’ faces, and even then saw only a tense-looking expression on a face held at an odd angle. What appeared to be a tiny detail actually caused a major impediment to the social and emotional interaction that’s a critical part of feeding.

It’s popular nowadays to emphasize early interactions, “skin-to-skin” experience, and so on, and I don’t dismiss those. But if we want to see how relationships, communication, and understanding of other people develop, I suggest we look at the thousands of feeding experiences that occur in the first year or so of a baby’s life. If someone invented feeding as a brand-new intervention, parents would rush to take workshops and learn how to do it. It doesn’t need to be invented, but parents need to understand its importance, and so do those who “coach” or support parents in other ways.

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