Clara Davis and the Feeding of Young Children

Parents often worry about their children’s nutrition. Children under six engender particularly high parental anxiety, because of their young age and their naturally variable eating habits. In the 1920s, pioneering Midwestern pediatrician Clara Davis set out to determine if young children instinctively know what to eat, in her “self-selection of diet experiment.”

Davis offered newly weaned infants, aged seven to nine months, a wide variety of nutritious, unmixed meats, grains, vegetables, and fruits. She allowed them to eat whichever foods they chose, in whatever quantity they wanted, without adult guidance or interference. She measured the amounts eaten carefully, even weighing bibs to subtract the amount spilled, and calculated the children’s intake of calories, carbohydrate, fat, and protein. The study period lasted six to twelve months. The children tended to eat widely varying amounts from meal to meal, often displaying “food jags” during which they ate considerable quantities of a favored food. Overall they ate a wider variety and greater amount of foods than pediatricians of the day thought advisable, without any of the “pickiness” that plagued parents and pediatricians then as now. Furthermore, all the children grew and developed well and were quite healthy.

Subsequent research has confirmed Davis’ findings, in shorter, smaller-scale studies, some of which are discussed. Comment is made about the ethical complexion of Davis’ long term experiment from today’s viewpoint. Davis was always quick to point out what she herself called “the trick” of her experiment, that the infants and toddlers only had foods of high nutritional value to choose from, and never saw any junk food.

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