Help…My child won’t eat!
Sound familiar? As a parent, you always want to do the best for your child and this includes trying to feed them the healthiest foods you can. But your best intentions are often abandoned when a fussy toddler refuses your meal!
Why do children refuse food?
The first thing to say is that food refusal is a normal part of toddler development.
▪ Between the ages of 6 and 12 months, most babies are willing to try new and different types of foods. They are naturally curious and want to try foods that you and other members of the family are eating. This is why it is so important to use this “window of opportunity” to offer a variety of foods for your baby to taste and explore their texture.
▪ Between the ages of 1-2 years, toddlers begin to develop a more suspicious view on food. This is called the ‘neophobic response to food’, which means that they become slightly wary of trying new foods. It is thought that this is a survival mechanism to protect a child from eating something poisonous.
But the good news is that most toddlers grow out of this ‘neophobic’ phase and will develop a healthy attitude to foods if they see their siblings and parents/carers eating a wide variety of foods.
6 Top tips to help manage fussy eaters…
TOP TIP 1: Develop a routine for mealtimes and snacks.
Make sure you offer meals and snacks at more or less the same time each day, so that your child knows what to expect. This also ensures that your child does not become too hungry or tired to eat.
TOP TIP 2: Learn to recognise signals for when your toddler has had enough to eat.
You decide WHAT your child eats and let them decide HOW MUCH they eat.
Your child is telling you they have had enough when they do the following:
– Keep their mouth shut
– Turn their head away
– Push away a spoon or fork
– Hold food in their mouth
– Spit food out
– Gag or retch
Try offering a “do it yourself” meal, such as making your own wraps, pitta breads or pizzas. You choose the toppings that are available and let your children choose what they would like to go in/on their wrap/pitta/pizza.
TOP TIP 3: Check fluid intake from milk and other drinks.
If a child is full up on juice or milk they will not have an appetite for their food. Use a drinking cup for water/diluted juice/milk and try to phase out feeding bottles by about 12 months of age. Between 1 and 3 years of age, a child needs a maximum of 350ml of milk per day to meet their calcium requirements.
TOP TIP 4: Involve children in food preparation.
Get creative and start cooking with your children. They will learn about different foods and are more likely to try foods that they have helped prepare. Give them little tasks to do, such as stirring a sauce, chopping vegetables with small scissors, weighing out ingredients, etc
TOP TIP 5: Don’t’ give up!
Children need repeated exposure to a food in order to accept it – this can be 10-15 times. If they don’t like a food the first time, don’t worry; just try it again in a week or so. Keep offering a food to your child…perseverance is the key!
TOP TIP 6: Check for medical causes.
Constipation and iron deficiency anaemia can decrease a child’s appetite. Previous negative / unpleasant experiences around food and eating, such as pain, vomiting or gastro-oesopageal reflux can also affect a child’s eating behaviour. If you suspect your child may have one of these conditions, contact your GP.
A final note… If your child eats a very limited range of foods (10 foods or less) or is particularly sensitive to sound, touch or smells, they may have sensory processing problems. Ask your GP to refer your child to a Paediatrician and they may recommend a multi-disciplinary Feeding Clinic.
Article credit: Paula Hallam BSc (Med) (Hons) Nutrition and Dietetics, RD
Specialist Paediatric Dietitian
Tiny Tots Nutrition Ltd