I vividly remember the first time someone tried to soothe my crying child with a sweet.

It was at the doctor’s office after my daughter had gotten a shot.  She was crying and the nurse offered her a lollypop.

Having watched both my mother’s constant struggle with food, and her premature death from obesity-related issues, I was hyper-attuned to the problems associated with using food to soothe the soul.

And so, that day at the doctor’s office I whipped the lollypop away from the nurse before my daughter could see it.  I soothed her with hugs and kisses and then, only after my daughter had recovered from the trauma, did I offer up the lollypop.

You see, I wasn’t against the lollypop. I was against teaching my daughter to use sweets to soothe her soul.

Research shows that children learn to eat for emotional reasons as early as age 3.

It’s a startling statistic that makes you think.  Read Using Sweets to Soothe the Soul.

Given my history, I’m sure you can see why I was determined from the get-go not to soothe my sweetheart with food.  And while I haven’t always been as effective as that day in the doctor’s office—Read Cookie Love and you’ll see how I adore feeding my daughter sweets and treats—I’ve been pretty good about using food as, well, food.  And it is a good thing too.

A new study shows that mothers who reported using food to soothe their kids tend to have heavier children.

I’m not interested in vilifying mothers.

For starters, I am one, and raising children is hard to do (especially, if like me, you sometimes feel like you’re raising your husband too!).  What’s more, I don’t think anyone is ever really prepared to handle the range of issues that come up with kids.   Sometimes food can be a handy tool.

Here’s the study:

  • Gather 100 mothers of 3-36 month old children.
  • Ask the mothers a bunch of questions about how they meet their children’s basic needs (feeding, sleeping, crying, soothing).
  • Gather data about the children’s height/length and weight.
  • Ask the mothers to assess how they feel about their competence as parents, and how ably they feel they meet their children’s needs.
  • Ask the mothers to assess their infant’s temperament.
  • Crunch the numbers and see what happens.

Mothers who used food to soothe were more likely to describe their infants and toddlers as having a negative temperament.

The mothers were also more likely to feel that they were not effective parents, especially when it came to being able to soothe their children.

Mothers who used food to soothe their children had heavier children.

Mothers who used food to soothe children with negative temperaments had even heavier children.

Much of the emphasis on child obesity is directed towards identifying the kinds of foods that lead to weight gain. 

This research shows that we need to move beyond thinking about what our kids eat, and start considering why they eat the way they do.

In this study, the researchers found that using food to soothe the soul can be a successful strategy.  However, the long-term costs are probably pretty high, particularly for children with challenging personalities.

Soothing kids with food teaches them a bunch of bad habits, including these:

  • To use distress (not just hunger) as a cue to eat.
  • That eating has rewards (i.e. emotional relief) beyond taste and satiation.

The more negative the child, the more opportunities for soothing, the more risk there is for becoming overweight.

When parents do NOT use food to soothe their kids, especially those with highly negative personalities, the risk for childhood obesity is reduced.

This is good news.

I think it’s safe to say that nobody wants their kids to be overweight.  This study shows that by switching soothing strategies—consider hugs instead of handouts—parent can teach their kids the habits they need for a lifetime of healthy eating.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~


Stifter, C. A., S. Anzman-Frasca, L. L. Birch, and K. Voegtline. 2011. “Parent Use of Food to Soothe Infant/Toddler Distress and Child Weight Status. an Exploratory Study.” Appetite 57: 693-99.