Despite a growing consensus on the feeding practices associated with healthy eating patterns, few observational studies of maternal feeding practices with young children have been conducted, especially in low-income populations. The aim of this study was to provide such data on a low income sample to determine the degree to which observed maternal feeding practices compare with current recommendations.
Eighty low-income mothers and their preschool children were videotaped at dinner in their homes. Mothers were chosen from a larger study to create a 2 X 2 X 2 design: maternal ethnicity (African American vs. Latina) by child gender by child weight status (healthy weight vs. overweight/obese). Observers coded videotapes for a range of maternal feeding strategies and other behaviors.
Many mothers spent considerable time encouraging eating—often in spite of the child’s insistence that he or she was finished. Mothers talked little about food characteristics, rarely referred to feelings of hunger and fullness, and made more attempts to enforce table manners than to teach eating skills. Latina mothers showed higher levels of teaching eating skills and encouraging their children to eat; African American mothers showed higher levels of enforcing table manners and getting children to clear their plates. Mothers of boys used more unelaborated commands and less questions/suggestions than mothers of girls. Finally, compared to mothers of overweight/obese children, mothers of healthy weight children showed higher levels of encouraging eating and lower levels of discouraging eating.
Most of the mothers in this study did not engage in feeding practices that are consistent with current recommendations. They did this, despite the fact that they knew they were being observed. These results should be used to inform future research about the motivations behind mothers’ feeding practices and the development of interventions by helping identify areas in greatest need of change.