Children will eat at different times of the day, if we allow them to. But should we schedule meals throughout the day, or is it better to eat on demand?

The answer depends on the age of the child. Newborns don’t have their time clock set in any direction yet. Their sleeping cycle is not established and their eating time is erratic. At this age it is important to feed on demand; with time the baby will be able to go a number of hours without food and feedings become more predictable by about 3 months of age. Some baby care books advise to offer food to newborns every 3 hours around-the-clock, but if the baby feels hungry before the 3 hour limit you will end up with a crying baby, and a crying mother.

During the newborn period my advice is to pay attention to feeding/hunger cues and offer breast milk or formula on demand. After a few months, the baby will develop a semi-schedule of feeding, and the time in between feedings will be approximately 3 hours.

When the baby starts getting some sense of circadian rhythm, that is, when he/she becomes aware of the difference between day and night, he may cluster-feed in the evening while he gets used to transitioning to the night. This is a normal occurrence and does not in any way signify that the baby is not learning; on the contraire it means the newborn is now able to sense a change and his/her brain is ready to transition to the night.

By about 3 months of age most babies eat every 3 hours during the day and they cluster feed in the evening, from about 5 PM to 9 PM. They then are capable of sleeping 10 to 12 hours with an early morning feeding between 6 AM and 8 AM. It all has to do with the process of brain development created by the exposure to sunlight and the absence of sunlight.

When babies become toddlers, they are capable of going without food for hours. At this point many of them learn to test the rules and manipulate them to their advantage. This too is part of a natural, healthy process of learning. It is very tempting to offer the child food without much of a schedule with the purpose of assuring enough calorie intake for the day. It is more tempting when you are dealing with a picky eater: parents spend their days chasing poor meals by offering food right afterwards in order to make up for it. This technique does work for the most part. At the end of the day parents feel as if they have done their best at trying to feed this picky eater. But when we look at the quality of the food ingested the results may not be so healthy.

By offering food without a schedule we end up giving too many snacks of poor nutritional quality. Since the snacks taste good, they reinforce the child’s desire to avoid the regular meal in favor of the snack. Very soon the toddler ends up eating what he wants and never gets the opportunity to learn to eat good food. We all learn to eat quality food when we are hungry and we don’t have many choices. In order to make the child hungry, we must allow a number of hours in between meals and we must make sure we are not loading on crackers, gold fish and juice.

My advice is to offer food 4 times per day: breakfast, lunch, after-school snack and dinner. If we place breakfast as close as possible to waking up and dinner as near as feasible to going to bed, we then can situate lunch at about noon and a snack after school – or after the afternoon nap, for younger children. We now have our 4 meals with enough time in between them to become hungry.

Our body is designed to function better this way. We know that the production of Growth Hormone is important for children’s growth and development. This hormone is secreted by a gland inside the brain, the anterior pituitary. The secretion of Growth Hormone is not continuous but pulsatile; it does increase by certain stimuli. One of the stimuli for Growth Hormone secretion is a substance called Ghrelin, which is secreted by the stomach when we are hungry. So, we are programmed to be hungry at certain times and being hungry is not bad for us.

In our society we have learned to avoid the sensation of hunger at all cost. Food is readily available and, for the most part, it is socially acceptable to eat anywhere at any time. Snacking too much creates another negative accomplishment: it gives us the opportunity to teach the child to associate food and emotions. At this is not a good association, especially in toddlers, who are emotional and ready to let us know when things don’t go their way.

When a parent gets into the habit of carrying food with them and giving snacks to the child, they end up offering those snacks when the toddler is upset and about to throw a temper tantrum; the child then eats while going to the grocery store and when in the doctor’s office. They eat while driving in the car and while going for a ride in their stroller….. You get the picture.

The association of food and emotions is not a good one to acquire. When these children become adults they are going to have a hard time staying away from food and this bad habit may contribute to the development of health problems.

As the mother of 3 children I learned my lesson early on. I have to say I had the advantage of having grown up in a society with very strict rules when it came to eating etiquette. Although looking back I find some of those rules a little too strict, they did help me do the right thing when my children were growing up.

Today’s mothers are constantly receiving conflicting information about nutrition, as some of the food manufacturer’s point out the benefits of vegetable puffs or vitamin-enhanced crackers. As a rule of thumb, if it doesn’t look or taste like a vegetable or a fruit, it is not likely to be a vegetable or a fruit.

Another word that sells these days is “natural”, and I do like this word. Let’s go back to the “natural” way of eating: offer the real thing at mealtime only. You are going to end up ahead when it comes to assuring good nutrition for your children.

Marta Katalenas M.D.

About the Author

Dr. Katalenas

Dr. Katalenas is a pediatrician and owner of The Pediatric Center of Round Rock and the author of the book "The Step Up Diet: From Scratch… The Quality, Quantity, and Timing Solution to Childhood Obesity", a guide to healthy cooking and eating for busy families.