The vast majority of parents are unwittingly giving their toddlers too much food, putting them at risk of obesity according to new research from leading health and nutrition experts – the Infant & Toddler Forum (ITF).

The survey of 1000 UK mums and dads revealed that 79% of parents routinely offer portions bigger than the recommended size range for pre-schoolers when serving popular meals (such as spaghetti bolognaise and chicken nuggets with chips), drinks and treats. The survey, which involved parents looking at images of portion sizes, also revealed that more than 10% of parents usually serve their child close to an adult-size portion of spaghetti bolognaise or cheese sandwiches.

The findings highlighted the emotional complexities of feeding toddlers: 73% are more concerned that their child does not eat enough – twice as likely as they are to be concerned that their child eats too much. Only 25% of parents worry that their child might become overweight in the future. Just a quarter of parents are ‘very confident’ about the amount of food to give to their child, and younger parents (aged 18-24 years) are significantly less confident than older parents.

There was also a tendency for parents to use food or drink between meals as a pacifier, with 36% of parents using this method to calm children down when they are upset. Experts warn that using food or drink as a reward, to comfort and/or distract encourages young children to rely on food to deal with emotions, teaching them to continue this behaviour in later life.

Judy More, Paediatric dietitian and member of the ITF, commented: “Practical advice for parents on appropriate portion sizes for toddlers has been lacking, so it’s not surprising, our survey revealed a significant lack of understanding about how much to feed toddlers. With new evidence linking larger portion sizes to excess weight gain, it’s clear parents need practical advice right now.

Gill Harris, Child and Clinical psychologist and member of the ITF, commented: “It’s never too early to start promoting healthy eating habits. Most toddlers are naturally better than older children and adults at regulating their food intake. They usually only eat what they need and don’t overeat. However, portion size is critical. It’s one of the main ways in which, as parents, we can inadvertently override children’s self-regulation systems. Larger portions form our acceptance about what is an appropriate amount to eat and this becomes the “norm”. In other words, how much you offer often determines how much your child will eat and habits learned in early life generally tend to persist.”

uk parents overfeeding