Childrens behavior and social development are affected by many factors, including age, development, temperament, intelligence, and experience. The quality of adult guidance, supervision, and environment plays a role. Appropriate nutrition and amounts of food are factors affecting childrens behavior as well.
Infants and young children have small stomachs so they cannot eat large quantities at once. Infants should be fed on demand. Toddlers and preschoolers require meals and snacks every 2-1/2 to 3 hours to help keep nutrient, energy, and blood sugar levels stable.
A child who is hungry may have stomach discomfort, headache, or other physical irritations. And since young children often cannot verbalize these feelings, the caregiver must recognize the childs needs by observing behavior. When caregivers respond early, the childs needs get met sooner keeping energy levels stable and helping the child stay in control.
Signs of hunger
Infants show hunger with cues such as increased leg and arm movement and sucking sounds. They may smack their lips, turn their heads, and open their mouths wide when they are touched on the chin, cheek or lips. They may suck on their hands, get fussy and cry. Older infants may reach for your snack or begin to point to their bottle, the refrigerator, or other objects (spoon, table) they associate with eating.
Toddlers may begin to ask for what they want. However, their vocabulary skills are limited; so caregivers should notice, comment on, and respond to non-verbal cues as well. Behaviors such as mouthing toys, sucking fingers, grabbing or throwing toys in frustration, or biting may be signs of hunger. Watch for a pattern in each childs behavior, especially close to meal or snack time.
Preschoolers may tell you they are hungry, ask for food, or communicate stomach or head discomfort. They also may become grumpy or fidgety, or exhibit aggressiveness.
Provide Nutritious Foods
Children need nutritious foods that provide a stable amount of glucose (energy) throughout the day. Foods high in sugar and simple carbohydrates (cookies, etc.) can satisfy a childs hunger, but result in the child eating less of the nutritious foods needed by the body.
Processed foods and refined sugars provide the body with short-term energy, which also can produce rapid rises and falls in blood sugar levels. These fluctuations can impact fat storage, appetite, attention, thinking, and mood, which in turn, affects a childs behavior.
Prepare and provide healthy meals and snacks from each of the five food groups every day. The Food Guide Pyramid is an excellent guide for daily meal and snack planning. The USDA Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) also provides guidance to help stay on track in terms of nutrition and still be creative and vary menus according to portion sizes, nutritional requirements, seasonal items and child preferences. Even if your program does not fully participate in this program, you can access the menu planner and other resources at their website.
Observe each childs eating behavior during meals to assure that they eat a variety of foods. At snack time, you can fill in nutritional gaps you may notice during meals. For instance, if a child did not eat the protein part of lunch, you can make up for that by adding peanut butter to apple slices at snack time. Avoid prepackaged, processed foods for snacks.
Respect Childrens Tastes
Respect a childs dislikes and substitute other items that provide similar nutrients when possible. If you are introducing a new food, only serve a tablespoon or two at first and encourage (but do not force) children to taste it. If a food is not accepted, try preparing it a different way. It may take up to 18 exposures to a new food before a child will accept it. Praise the childs attempts as well as successes in tasting new foods.
Children love to test their emerging independence, their ability to explore, taste, choose and decide. For instance, children love to dip foods. Eating fresh foods such as thin carrot strips or bananas can be more fun if you provide two yogurt flavors and allow children to dip the foods.
What, when, and where children eat is the responsibility of the parent and caregiver. How much is eaten is the childs responsibility. Young children usually self-regulate as long as they are served proper portions.
Give children small servings and teach them to recognize signs of fullness just as they do signs of hunger. Encourage them to stop eating when they are full. Remember, fluctuations in appetites and eating are not unusual.
Children returning to childcare after an illness may have calories to catch up on since illness depletes energy stores. You may want to temporarily increase available food or snacks for this child. The childs appetite and food intake will begin to balance out once they are well and in their normal routine.
Monitor and record
Take notes on what children eat. Do the same with behavior. One example of a tool for tracking food consumed and behavior is to make your own daily food consumption chart for each child. List the day, time, food eaten, and mood and behavior across the top of four columns on a page. Days of the week can be drawn down the left hand side with spaces for morning, noon, and afternoon. Write down the childs food choices and what and how much the child eats. Then note behaviors that the child exhibits and the time of the day.
As you review this information, you may see patterns over time. For example, you may have a child whose behavior is challenging in the morning, but levels out after a mid-morning snack. If your program does not provide breakfast each day, encourage parents to tell you what their children eat each morning.
A child who has not eaten since the night before may have difficulty engaging in the morning activities. A child who eats donuts and fruit beverages for breakfast is starting the day with you in a different nutritional state than the child who has eaten cereal, fruit and milk, or an egg and 100 percent juice.
Another example is a child who gets grumpy, throws toys, annoys other children, or becomes more easily distracted in the late morning. If you know that this child has eaten a nutritious breakfast, then perhaps you can arrange for lunch to be available sooner or provide a small snack at mid-morning.
Keep in mind, however, that other factors may influence behavior as well, such as lack of sleep or other stressors.
Ritamarie Giosa, RN, Childcare Health Consultant Coordinator, Camden County, New Jersey Division for Children
Resources for reproducible food tracking worksheets for children and adults, posters, games, coloring pages, tips for families and lesson plans can all be found at the USDA Team Nutrition website. A CD containing most of these resources is available to childcare providers and schools who participate in the food program. Others can access them by downloading from the website. USDAs Team Nutrition, 3101 Park Center Dr., Rm. 632, Alexandria, VA 22302; 703-305-1624; www.fns.usda.gov
USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, 3101 Park Center Dr., Room 1034, Alexandria, VA 22302-1594; www.mypyramid.gov
Resources for recipes and activities (provider and parent), ChildFun Family, www.childfun.com/modules.php