Feeding baby in front of TV

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  • January 31, 2019
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Behavior that is reinforced will continue. With any type of infant or child behavior – whether this is desirable or undesirable behavior – the parent will either encourage (reward and reinforce) or discourage their child’s behavior depending on how they (the parent) responds.

Parents of feeding-averse babies might use distractions, such as the TV, videos on a smartphone or tablet or other tactics, to take baby’s focus off feeding because they discover that doing so means he fusses less and takes a little more milk. When distracted, a feeding-averse baby’s defenses are lowered and as a result, he’s less oppositional to feeding. It’s understandable that parents would resort to using distractions. It’s less upsetting for all involved compared to trying to fight with Baby to make him feed. And so for some feeding-averse babies, watching TV while feeding becomes a habit.

In the case of a baby preferring to feeding as he watches TV, while the parent continues to feed baby in front of the TV – even sometimes and not necessarily every time – this will encourage and reinforce baby’s desire to watch TV while feeding. Once a baby has developed a preference for feeding while watching TV, he will not suddenly stop wanting to do so while the parent continues to reinforce this habit.

I am not saying it’s right or wrong to feed a baby while he watches TV. That’s something Baby’s parents much decide. Most parents don’t decide, “I think I will teach my baby to feed in front of the TV”. Mostly, it’s a situation that unintentionally evolves. Some parents may feel like they have no say in the matter because Baby gets upset if they don’t abide by his wishes, but in reality, they do have a choice.

If you decide to discourage this habit – in addition to following my feeding recommendations to avoid pressuring baby to feed – you would need to stop feeding him in front of the TV. Your baby will not be happy when you first make this change. Initially, he might refuse the feed, or if accepting of the feed he’s likely to fuss and take less. His milk intake will drop and his feeding behavioral ratings will be lower compared to when he feeds in front of the TV. However, his resistance will be only temporary. Provided you consistently enforce a ‘no TV while feeding’ rule, your baby will slowly come around to accepting feeds without the TV, and his milk intake and behavioral ratings will improve in a matter of 3 to 5 days.

Consistency is the key to changing a baby’s habit! Even occasionally feeding Baby while he watches the TV has the potential to encourage this habit. It would be better to choose TV or no TV than to swing back and forth. Inconsistency has the potential to teach a baby to become increasingly more resistant. For example, if baby refuses to feed without the TV, and the parent persists for a little while but ultimately gives in because of baby’s fussing and feeding refusal, he learns that by continuing to fuss he will eventually get what he wants. When repeated, it can appear like he’s becoming increasingly more insistent on feeding in front of the TV. This does not imply that Baby is being manipulative. He’s not! A baby cannot be manipulative. If his prolonged fussing turns a ‘no’ into a ‘yes’ then his fussing is rewarded as a result of the parent eventually giving him what he wanted from the start.

Changing a ‘watching TV while feeding’ habit is not something that gets easier down the track. In fact, as a baby gets older he can become even more resistant to change. He will resist and his milk intake and behavioral ratings will dip whenever this habit is discouraged. So delaying until Baby is over his feeding aversion, only delays the inevitable. Or what tends to happen is that the parent cannot bear to upset baby again – now that he’s finally over his aversion and feeding well – and so the parent allows baby to continue bottle-feeding (and later eat solids) in front of the TV over the long-term.

This same principle applies to other habits that a baby may develop while feeding that parents don’t chose to encourage, but do so none-the-less. For example, if baby prefers to be fed while the parent stands, rocks or walks with baby in arms, or while the parent bounces on a yoga ball while feeding baby, or fed in a baby rocker, swing or propped on cushions, or when baby prefers to feeds only in a dark environment, or he only wants to feed directly before going down for a nap. The parent will reinforce these habits by continuing to provide for Baby’s preferences. If the parent decides to discourage such behavior by no longer doing these things while baby feeds, there will be resistance on baby’s part in the short term, but if the parent is a consistent and persistent, baby will eventually learn to feed without these props.

Written by: Rowena Bennett, RM, RM, MHN, CHN, IBCLC

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