Maternal Feeding Strategies and Young Children's Snack Intake

Author: Samantha B Boots

Boots, Samantha B, 2019 Maternal Feeding Strategies and Young Children's Snack Intake, Flinders University, College of Education, Psychology and Social Work

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Parents use a variety of feeding strategies in an attempt to encourage their young children to eat healthy foods and to limit the intake of unhealthy foods. Two such strategies are restrictive feeding and covert control. Restrictive feeding involves parents’ deliberate attempts to enforce limits that are explicitly communicated to the child, while covert control involves limit-setting through controlling the child’s environment. In general, restrictive feeding has been associated with poorer outcomes in children’s eating. At the time that this thesis was conceptualised, there was little evidence as to the impact of covert control, particularly on children’s snack intake. Thus the overall aim of the thesis was to investigate restrictive and covert control feeding strategies on young children’s healthy and unhealthy snack intake, with a view to differentiating beneficial and detrimental effects of parental feeding.

Study 1 was a large cross sectional study of mothers of children aged 2-7 years from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds who completed online questionnaires about their feeding strategies and also reported on their child’s snack intake. Factor analysis (Study 1a) showed that the strategies mothers use could be broadly conceptualised into three factors, which we labelled overt (including restriction), covert and parental modeling. Overt control was associated with greater unhealthy and less healthy snack intake in children, whereas covert control showed the opposite pattern. The study (Study 1b) also showed that the use of maternal restriction was associated with a general authoritarian parenting style. Finally, it was shown (Study 1c), that restrictive feeding and covert control translated into specific parental behaviours in response to difficult snack food requests in real life feeding situations. Study 2 was a longitudinal follow-up of the same sample that showed initial parental restrictive feeding predicted increased unhealthy snack intake three years later, while greater initial covert control predicted less unhealthy snack intake three years later. Study 3 examined the effect of maternal feeding strategy on children’s eating behavior using a laboratory-based paradigm. Results showed that maternal restrictive feeding was associated with eating in the absence of hunger for girls, but not boys. Covert control was not associated with eating in the absence of hunger. Using the same sample, Study 4 examined prospectively (over a two-year period) the effect of maternal feeding strategies on child food preferences collected via interviews with the children themselves. Findings showed that greater initial use of restrictive feeding was associated with increased child preference for sweets and decreased preference for fruit and vegetables two years later, while covert feeding strategies showed the reverse pattern, with decreased preference for sweets and increased preference for fruit and vegetables.

Taken together, the findings of the four studies confirm that the use of restrictive feeding by parents has a detrimental impact on children’s eating in both the short and longer term, while covert feeding strategies seem to have a beneficial impact. Accordingly, the results contribute to the conceptual understanding of the two different feeding strategies, as well as offering practical implications which can usefully inform parents of young children.

Keywords: Parent feeding strategies, restrictive feeding, covert control, children's snack intake

Subject: Psychology thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2019
School: College of Education, Psychology and Social Work
Supervisor: Professor Marika Tiggemann