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Ellyn Satter and the Division of Responsibility- How can it help your child's eating?

Updated: Sep 30, 2019

When I first started working with families with feeding issues, I found that there were three strategies that made a big difference and dramatically improved feeding when implemented.

  • Helping families to reduce stress and pressure around meal times.

  • Having family meals where the focus was on having time for connection (not on how the child is eating)

  • Creating a structure and routine around for meal and snack times.

I have repeatedly supported families to apply these strategies and seen peace return to their mealtimes and feeding significantly improve. Many families may need additional support or interventions with more challenging feeding issues but even in these cases these fundamental principles help to make an improvement in a child's eating.

In the field of family feeding and feeding relationships one name stands out, Ellyn Satter. Ellyn is a dietitian and family therapist with over 40 years experience or exploring the research around the child’s relationship with food and feeding. She has pioneered this work and has changed the way many health professionals approach family nutrition and feeding difficulties.

The Food Tree ethos and guidance is influenced by the research and work of The Ellyn Satter institute, specifically, what she describes as the Division of responsibility (DOR). When I came across Ellyn’s work initially I felt like it put a name and structure to all that i’d experienced and found to be beneficial when working with children with feeding challenges.

The Division of Responsibility focuses on changing the way in which we approach mealtimes with our family. It requires a mindset shift away from focusing on “getting your child to eat”. Instead it encourages us to focus first on providing the right atmosphere to facilitate and nurture your child’s self regulation and intuitive eating skills. It is a well proven and evidence based approach. Put simply it looks at roles and responsibilities at mealtimes.

This can be a very difficult concept for parents and caregivers to get their head around (especially if you have the worry of a child who isn’t eating). It requires an element of trust in both our children and ourselves.

As parents it can be incredibly stressful if your little one is not eating and the idea of relinquishing control over meal times and amount of food to your child often feels counterintuitive and a bit scary. “How will I get them to eat if I just leave the eating to them?” I hear some people say.

The reality is it is not your job to “get” your child to eat. In actual fact and kind of pressure is likely to have the opposite effect to what you intend. Children that feel pressure to eat (or not to eat if you’re trying to limit them) often end up swinging to extremes in response to pressure and either refuse to eat or overeat.

To be able to let go of “getting” your child to eat takes trust. Trust that your child will actually eat something, trust that they will learn to eat and get enough to nourish them. Learning to eat a wide range of foods, takes time. Trust and patience from you is key in helping your child learn this valuable skill that will stay with them for the rest of their life.

This approach to feeding is not something new (even though it may be new to you) it is seen as best practice by feeding therapists, dietitians, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists and Doctors working in the field of feeding relationships and challenging feeding. It is also recognised by the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, American Academy of Paediatrics and the Expert Committee on Child Obesity as best practice in feeding.

What I love most about recommending this approach, is that time and time again, it has led to more joyful, relaxed eating for the whole family. Taking these small steps to heal your family meal time brings so much more than improved nutrition. Meal times can become your family’s favourite time of day, a chance to connect, share conversation and enjoy the meal together. That is certainly something worth striving for. Like trying anything new, it takes time and support to make changes. However, once you make the decision to bring peace to your table, we are here, ready to support you.

Using the division of responsibility as a structure helps by providing simple guidelines for roles and responsibilities at meal times. It reduces the stress around meal times and can also help to limit boundary-pushing. As the approach allows children to have some autonomy in choosing what and if they want to eat. It allows you to focus on the joy and connection of coming together as a family and let go of the worry.

Most importantly using the division of responsibility as a structure gives space to nurture your child’s inner wisdom. Their innate ability to listen to their bodies needs and eat intuitively. Children are born with the ability to eat intuitively and as parents it is our role to protect this mechanism.

It’s essential for parents to be aware of their role and responsibilities when fostering the development of a healthy relationship with body and food for their child. This approach helps raise a child who wants to eat and enjoys food. All you need to do is provide what to eat, sit back and let your child do the rest.

We all have different relationships with food and our bodies and the core of this relationship comes from how we were raised and the behaviours and language about food and bodies that surrounded us during childhood. In order to raise a child who is a competent eater you yourself need to have a good relationship with your own body. If this is something you’d wish to explore more Rachael can help walk you through this process.

We’re delighted that Rachael had the opportunity to be one of 7 people worldwide who was part of this years Ellyn Satter institute Affiliate programme.

Ellyn Satter’s DOR compliments our work beautifully. When combined with The Food tree resources and proven approaches such as sensory play, mindful eating techniques, respectful parenting approach, our own knowledge, research, and experience it has given us the perfect recipe to help others with feeding their own family.

If you too would like to find your way to more peaceful meals pre-order a copy of our latest guide book Feeding a growth mindset.

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