Breaking Mealtime Rules and Mirror Neurons by Richard Kahn, M.S., Registered Dietitian

By July 20, 2015Blog

mirrorThere s a practical feeding rule for parents and children: Keep meals to 20 to 30 minutes. Most meals take about that amount of time. If meals are a difficult time of day at your house, 20 to 30 minutes is enough discomfort for parents and children. There is also a time to break the 20/30 rule. The reason for breaking the rule come from the relatively recent discovery of mirror neurons. Mirror neurons explain how we learn by copying without conscious cognition. The specialized nerves use the eye to bypass the word-driven teaching style we picked up in school and continues into adult play and work. Mirror neurons help the preverbal infant learn by watching. If you and another adult are enjoying a postprandial chat, stay at table so your child can see a great part of life. A good book on the neurons is The Empathic Brain by Christian Keyes, a mirror neuron researcher and an award winning science writer. The book inspired me to rethink how one case succeeded.

Mirror neurons explain how children learn from copying physical gestures and the emotions that accompany them. One mom recently told me how fast her toddler learned the Frisbee postures and throwing gestures by watching some teenagers. Famed child psychoanalyst Theodore Gaensbauer thinks that mirror neurons explain how infants as young as three months integrate profound emotions and the movements associated with the emotions. The take home message: Enjoy your their meals together with their child as soon as their child is born. That way, children tacitly learn the pleasures of the table through modeling. The specialized nerves also pick up verbal and written cues, too. This posting focuses on how parents informed patience helps difficult eaters get on track. In many cases, actions at the table speak louder than words as happened in the following case.

I was called to evaluate 12 month-old twin girls recently adopted from a foreign orphanage. Their nutrients came only from bottles. When presented with food, they had no idea about what it was or what to do with it. At that time, many foreign orphanages only bottle-fed young children. The girls, I inferred, missed out on the table time associated with the transition to solids between 6 and 12 months. Otherwise, the girls seemed responsive and fit. As the evaluation ended, the parents asked me what to do. I suggested that the family should just eat with the twins present. In other words, just model eating.

Waiting is hard. That is why patience is a virtue. The desire to act tempts the parent and the professional. Training helps the professional hold back. When the parent or therapist holds back with informed patience, the child moves into the discovery arena. Informed patience, sometimes called studied inaction, is faith in the essential ability of the child.

After working with other therapists, the family contacted me. We worked on modeling and holding back. Sessions usually took the form of coached meals. From the outside, we just talked about nutrition, parenting during mealtimes and other topics. Internally, the parents were kept focused on the conversation and food until they got it. That is, parents and I chatted and ate. In this way, the urging, talking and worry the child experiences as stressful meals is kept to a minimum. Parents fears that manifest in actions and words interrupt the child's focus and ability to model. Modeling tapped into mirror neurons and, eventually, the girls own development drives towards mastery. At last report, the girls eat everything.

Most of us, children and adults, relish sitting around a chat filled table. Young children cannot understand their parents worries. They do, however, feel the worry. And, worry can suppress appetite. Convivial meals at home or out with family, friends and your children build a foundation for the future. Bon app tit!

“>Richard Kahn, PhD, RD, is a NYC pediatric nutritionist in private practice specializing in the needs of young children. Reach him at richard@brooklynletters.com or RichardKahnNutrition.com.

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