Why Do Pleasurable Feedings Matter?
Pleasurable feedings lay the groundwork for health as well as a lifelong positive relationship with food. While the time spent in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) allows an infant to learn the skills necessary for eating, it also establishes a process of learning (about food? Establishes a foundation for learning?). When infants are first born, they are driven to eat by a combination of primitive motor responses and an instinctual response to the discomfort of hunger. These “automatic” behaviors are necessary in the beginning, when the infant has had no experience with eating. However, the infant will eventually transition to a feeding behavior that is completely voluntary. It is imperative that early feedings focus not only on achieving the volume necessary to grow, but also on the pleasurable experiences of eating so the infant learns that eating is enjoyable. At approximately 1-2 months post-term, the primitive motor responses will integrate, leaving the infant with only the voluntary motor actions. For some infants whose early experiences have been painful, uncomfortable, or extremely unpleasant, this transition period leads to a desire to stop eating.
Pleasurable feedings are also important for the parent-infant relationship. We spend more time feeding our infants than doing anything else with them – more time than dressing them, talking to them, bathing them, etc. When feedings are going well, parents and infants enjoy the experience and each other. When feedings become an activity everyone dreads, it negatively impacts the parent-infant relationship.
"Working with the nurses and therapists was critical for our family as we navigated through a variety of feeding difficulties with our daughter in the NICU. While they were exceptionally trained and extremely knowledgeable, I am most thankful for the way they brought me into the fold as a primary feeder and decision maker. I was so nervous to feed my little girl, but they went above and beyond to patiently teach me how to effectively and safely ensure she was getting everything she needed while reminding me along the way how much more there is to the experience (for mama and baby) than just transferring calories. It opened my eyes to the bonding and enjoyment we could still find in those early, terrifying weeks of feeding, and it gave me confidence to leave the hospital feeling prepared and excited to go home. Feeding is so much more than just getting enough volume in – it is the foundation for our relationship. Focusing on the experience helped me to trust both myself and my baby. I am so thankful for the fact that they kept me at the center of the team!"
Julie Foge, Parent
Dr. Ross has spent almost 30-years working with infants and young children who are learning to eat, or who have developed pediatric feeding disorders. She has worked extensively in the NICU setting, the early intervention/home setting, and in clinic-based programs. Her work in the NICU has focused on shifting attention from volume-driven feeding to infant-led feeding: with the idea that improving feeding skill and quality of feeding translate to improved volume.
Throughout her career, she has developed programs to support the earliest feedings in the hospital setting, with the goal of decreasing the number of infants who develop pediatric feeding disorders.