Baby led feeding, or the division of responsibility, focuses on setting up the foundation of responsive feeding. It’s not to be confused with baby led weaning which is a feeding strategy for introducing solids to your baby (looking for more tips on starting solids? I got you covered). Responsive feeding is the idea that your child is in charge of certain aspects of eating. It is not up to the caregiver to determine what or how much a child eats. You trust that your child will honor their hunger and satiety cues. This sets them up for balanced eating in the future.
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The Division of Responsibility with Feeding
The foundation of the Division of Responsibility (DOR) is that you trust your child. Parents trust that children will eat when hungry and stop if full. It limits the pressure that parents can put on their child in hopes of them eating better. It is a technique that has been shown to decrease pickiness over time when used effectively.
We break down meals into 2 categories: the parent’s job and the child’s job. You may notice that when you first introduce solids, there won’t be much push-back from your baby. It is still important to let them have their job and be in charge of their own bodily autonomy.
|Parent’s Job||Child’s Job|
|What to offer for meals||If they will eat|
|When to offer meals||What they will eat|
|Where to offer meals||How much they will eat|
What to eat:
You choose what is served. If you don’t want your child eating something, don’t serve it. Seem too simple? It is! Remember this approach is designed to limit the amount of stress at a meal. You may find that your baby is willing to eat anything you set in front of them. Often between 1-2, children start getting pickier and having stronger feelings about their meals. It’s always important to acknowledge that your child may not want what you are serving for a meal, but that you will not be making them a separate meal.
I recommend always serving at least 1 “safe” or preferred food: a food that your child typically likes. It is ok if they only eat the safe food and you do not need to limit the safe food (unless it causes GI distress or there is a limit to how much you have).
It can be helpful to make a list of your child’s preferred foods to help give you some ideas so that you’re not always stuck serving the same foods. If you are serving new or unfamiliar foods, you can serve a heartier safe food to help your child feel more comfortable, but you don’t need to make them a completely new meal.
You may find that during the toddler phase, safe foods may change day to day, but try not to stress too much about it. If they don’t eat much at a meal or snack, know that there will be another opportunity soon, because you are also in charge of…
When to eat:
You choose how often to offer meals/snacks. Children, especially young children, respond well to a schedule. This doesn’t mean that you need to eat breakfast at 7 AM everyday and if you serve it at 7:30 your whole day is ruined, but you should aim to serve a meal or snack every 2-3 hours for little ones and every 3-4 hours for older children.
This should hopefully prevent them from getting too hangry and if they choose not to eat at a meal, you will have the peace of mind knowing there will be another opportunity in the not-so-far future. When you are first starting solids, you may be only offering 1 meal per day with breastmilk/formula feeds the rest of the day. As you get closer to 1 year, you can begin to offer more meals with the goal of 3 meals and 2-3 snacks (or breastmilk feeds) at around a year. You can always adjust meal and snack times if you notice your little one getting hungrier. Flexibility is key.
Where to eat:
This should preferably be a table and/or high chair. It’s important that your child is sitting upright while eating (sorry, strollers and car seats just aren’t safe). We want to limit eating while walking as well. (Having trouble keeping your child at the table? Check out these tips).
When a child is distracted while eating, they are not as able to detect their satiety cues and may overeat. In an ideal situation, a caregiver will be eating with the child, modeling table manners. It doesn’t really matter if you put food on a high chair tray or on the table, whatever works best for your family is best.
If they eat:
This can definitely be one of the most frustrating things for parents. Once children are over a year, their energy needs decrease, meaning they can eat much less than they used to. This is why it is especially important to have a meal/snack routine. You can trust that if your child isn’t hungry now, they will have another opportunity to eat in a few hours. This is also why I recommend having a safe food at meals. If your child isn’t eating their safe food either, they are most likely just not hungry!
What to eat:
While you are in charge of what is offered, it is up to your child to determine what they eat. This doesn’t mean that you should let them choose all their meals, it means that they can choose based off of what you offer. If they only eat their safe food, that’s fine.
The most important thing with picky eaters is exposing them to new foods. As long as you are offering them other foods, it still counts as an exposure. You can rotate through safe foods so that they aren’t always eating the same food. Try a fruit at one meal and pasta at another, whatever your child likes.
How much to eat:
Some days it may seem that your child eats more than you do. Other days it may seem like they are surviving on air alone. This is normal (but 100% frustrating). Trust that they will eat when they are hungry.
If they only eat their safe food, it is ok to give them more of it. You can give them as much as they feel they need (as long as it doesn’t cause GI issues and you have enough for everyone). Often parents tell me that they’re concerned that their child will eat too much and become overweight. My response? Don’t worry. Kids usually balance things out. Continue to offer nutrient dense foods, avoid things like juice and soda for the most part and trust your child.
Best Part of the Division of Responsibility:
The great thing about the division of responsibility is that it takes the stress out of a meal. Your child doesn’t want to eat, no problem. Your child only eats their safe food, no problem. Just make sure to serve a variety of foods at meals to give your child the opportunity to get a wide range of nutrients. This will help them meet all of their micronutrient needs as well as optimize their gut health.
The other great thing about the division of responsibility is that you can make it work for your family. None of these rules are set in stone. If there’s something that doesn’t quite sit right with you, don’t do it! While these guidelines work for a lot of families, every family is unique and modifications can be made (which is a benefit of working with a dietitian one on one: we can help you make these modifications).
Krystyn Parks is a Registered Dietitian and Lactation Consultant who specializes in feeding children. She has a Master’s Degree in Nutritional Science from California State University Long Beach. She is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and has been registered with the Commission on Dietetic Registration since 2013.