Breaking Mealtime Rules and Mirror Neurons

There’s a practical rule for parents feeding children: Keep meals to 20 to 30 minutes. Most meals take about that amount of time. If meals are a difficult time at your house, 20 to 30 minutes is enough discomfort for everyone. There is also a time to break the 20/30 rule. Reasons for breaking the rule come from the relatively recent discovery of mirror neurons and a case history. Mirror neurons explain how we learn by copying without conscious cognition. The specialized nerves use the eye or ears to bypass the word driven teaching styles and help us with social cues. Mirror neurons help pre-verbal infants and toddlers learn by watching and listening. When you and another adult enjoy a postprandial chat, staying at table models conviviality for your child.

Beatrice Beebe, an important infant researcher, shows a video demonstrating how fast moms and their babies copy each others facial gestures. Famed child psychoanalyst Theodore Gaensbauer thinks that mirror neurons explain how infants as young as three months link gestures and emotions by copying. Enjoy family and social meals together with your child as soon as possible after the birth.

Chat and chew with your baby on your lap. Keep your child nearby. Your child sees you eating, sharing affection and conversation. Modeling communicates with action, not words. Give more attention to adults. Give less to your child. Christian Keyes explains the science behind modeling in the Empathic Brain. Keyes is a neuroscientist and an award winning science writer. His book inspired me to rethink how one case succeeded.

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, the toddlers had no idea about what it was or what to do with it. At that time, many foreign orphanages only bottle fed infants. The girls, I inferred, missed out on the table time associated with the transition to solids between 6 and 12 months. Otherwise, the twins seemed responsive and fit. As I began to leave, 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.

The family later contacted me for assistance. Our sessions usually took the form of coached meals. We worked on modeling and letting the girls eat or not eat. From the outside, we just talked about nutrition, parenting for mealtimes and related topics. I had the opportunity to observe the large and small activities that made up the family’s mealtime style. Observations helped me tailor suggestions in real time. We made little experiments that succeeded or not. Internally, mom and dad were kept focused on our conversation and their own eating until everyone ‘got it.’

Sometimes, the girls hit their own 20/30 limit and left the table. As we adults kept on talking, the twins would often return and nibble along with us. At last report, the girls eat everything.
When parents focus on modeling, parents minimize the gestures, talking and other forms of urging that children can experience as distracting and stressful. Parents’ fears that manifest in words and actions, including facial gestures, interrupt the child’s focus and the functioning of the mirror neurons. The aroma of anxiety and worry suppresses the appetite. Saying things like ‘yum’ distract children. Children, naturally, listen to and look at the parent they love.

Sometimes, we parents cannot hold back especially if food is the issue. The desire to act tempts professionals, too. Training helps skilled professionals judiciously pick times to hold back from physical or verbal intervention. Parents rarely get that kind of training. When parents and therapists wisely wait, the child is freer to move into their personal discovery zone. Patience is faith in the essential ability of the child. If you and the other adults enjoy meals longer than 20 or 30 minutes, your child will soak up the convivial atmosphere over time. Bon appétit!