My child won’t eat: why and how to deal with it
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Many parents find themselves with the dilemma and concern of “my child won’t eat: why and how to deal with it”. This is especially true once your little one reaches a year of age. However, there is no need to be alarmed as a decrease or fluctuation in your child’s appetite is quite normal. Whether they want to eat or not, it is important to remember to keep encouraging good eating habits and avoid turning mealtime into a negative experience for all involved.
My Child Won’t Eat: Why and How To Deal With it- The Why
When a child suddenly refuses to eat, it can be alarming for many parents. After all, during their first year, they spend an awful lot of time eating. Eating helps them get the necessary nutrients and vitamins to support their growing bodies. Once they hit a year in age, the speed at which your child grows will drastically decrease compared to that first year. It should be no surprise then that as their speed of growth decreases, so too does their appetite.
Other Reasons My Child Won’t Eat
Sometimes their fluctuating appetite can be due to other reasons besides decreased growth. For instance, your child may:
- Be tired of the same foods and want to try something new
- Be feeling especially emotional
- Genuinely not be hungry
- Trying to get attention
- Be a picky eater
- Have an underlying medical problem
- Have a sensory issue with food
My Child Won’t Eat: Why and How to Deal With it- The How
When dealing with a child that won’t eat, whether it be because they aren’t growing as much or for one of the other reasons mentioned above, always keep mealtime a positive experience.
It can be frustrating trying to convince a toddler to eat when they don’t want to. It can even turn into a power struggle between child and parent. As you try to tackle mealtime with a positive attitude, remember that your child is still struggling to accurately express themselves, so it is up to you to try to address the cause with minimal hassle for all.
Is Your Child a Picky Eater or Wants to Try New Foods?
Many parents will try to feed their child something once or twice and remove it from their diet altogether. It is best to try not to remove it from their diet after only a few attempts. It can take up to twenty times for your child to decide they like a food!
You may even find that your toddler will eat certain vegetables or fruits at, say, grandma’s house just because of who prepared it and how. So, don’t go removing it from their diet right away. Keep in mind that your toddler spent their first year and a half of life discovering new flavors, and let’s face it, even adults get sick of eating the same food day in and day out. A good way to keep your child interested in eating is to change it up and offer a variety of different foods and food preparations to them.
If you find that your child is a picky eater and won’t eat certain foods, changing up the preparation of it can not only introduce new flavors but aid in getting them to foods that are beneficial for them.
Is Your Child Feeling Emotional or Trying to Get Attention?
We’ve all been there where stress or anxiety can affect our appetite, sometimes losing our appetite altogether. Your little one may be feeling an emotion especially strong that either ruins their appetite or distracts them from eating.
You also want to make sure that your child learns healthy eating habits and mealtimes don’t become a chore for everyone.
This is where keeping the experience positive comes in handy. Several ways you can do this is by:
- Stay Calm– Don’t get too worked up if your child won’t eat. Even a picky eater will eventually get such a strong appetite that they will eat what you give them. There will be some days that they barely eat followed by days where it seems they can’t get enough and are making up for their missed meals. If they are going through their terrible twos (or threes) you should remember that they are testing their limits at this stage. You may find them trying to get a reaction out of you just for the fun of it. It won’t matter if it is a good or bad reaction, so rather than let the frustration take hold and unintentionally reinforce their attempt to get a reaction, remain calm.
- Make mealtime a family experience– If your child is in a highchair make sure to bring the highchair to the dining table and encourage family mealtimes. If they see you eating your meals at the same time they should be eating, they will be more likely to pick up a spoon and feed themselves. This can also help with their wanting attention, as they will feel they are taking part in a family activity.
- Let your child help prepare meals– Having your little one prepare meals with you can greatly affect their interest in eating and increase the positive experience they have with food. It will also help them out of whatever emotional funk they may be feeling while giving them the attention they may crave.
- Limit distractions– Children can get easily excited or fixated on distractions that prevent them from eating. For instance, try not to schedule mealtime when other things are going on, like when mom or dad gets home from work. Such things can draw their attention to different wants and needs. You should also refrain from including TV as part of dinner. Children’s attention spans are already limited, by having something on TV or your iPad you shorten the attention they give to the actual act of eating.
- Serve appropriate portions- While we all have probably heard sayings like “eat all you take” and “clean your plate,” sometimes accompanied with a platitude about starving children somewhere in the world, this attitude is actually unhealthy. It does not teach children to listen to their bodies and recognize when they are full. To combat this, serve smaller portions for your little ones, but give them the option of getting seconds if they like the food. Also, if they have eaten something off of their plate, but maybe haven’t finished it, don’t make them stay at the table until it is all gone. You can have them package the food up to eat for later, or even the next day.
- Encourage “trying” but don’t force “finishing”- When introducing a new food into your child’s diet, you cannot expect them to like it immediately. This can be affected by how the food has been cooked, how similar the new food is to other foods already in their diet, and plenty of other factors. So, when there is a new food on the table, encourage your child to take a bite or two of it, but don’t force them to finish it. This not only gets them some of the nutrients you were trying to give them, but also encourages them to try new things but not necessarily be expected to like everything they try.
- Consider that the problem may be behavioral- Think about if your child has had a major change in their life recently such as a new teacher, a shift in friends, or a loss of an extracurricular activity as the seasons change. When children feel like they are out of control, they may try to control their eating because it is the one thing they feel they can control. Talk with them or consider seeing a counselor to have them talk through their issues so their physical and mental health can improve and thus so can their appetite.
It is also important to avoid these behaviors in order to keep things both positive and healthy for your child:
- Resorting to Bribery- Bribing your children with sweets or fun activities may work once or twice, but repeatedly doing this only adds more strain to your child’s relationship with food. It’s best not to do it at all.
- Sitting there until the food is gone- This was discussed earlier as part of not forcing your child to finish their food. Don’t shame your child by making them sit there until their plate is clean. It creates an unhealthy power struggle between you and your child and damages their relationship with both you, their food, and themselves.
Is Your Child Genuinely Not Hungry?
If your child just isn’t hungry, this can be due to their having too many snacks, eating a lot during previous meals, or having meals too close together or close to bedtime.
Did they have a large meal earlier in the day or eat a lot of snacks? If your child ate a lot during a previous meal, you shouldn’t worry much as they likely got what they needed in that meal.
If they are filling up on snacks, which generally have less nutritional value depending on the type of snack, it can be problematic for mealtime. To not spoil their appetite for major meals, keep snacks small, light, and far between.
Try to choose healthy snack choices such as strawberries, cheese sticks, crackers with hummus, or yogurt. The more nutritional the snack the better, and the less you will need to worry about whether they are getting all the nutrition they need.
Are mealtimes too close together/dinner too close to bedtime? Sometimes they may not be hungry because their mealtimes are too close together. Try spacing out mealtime and snack times to allow your child time to get hungry. Additionally, meals too close to a big activity can become stressful if there is a pressure to eat quickly, so it is best to schedule meals with enough time before the activity to let your child eat comfortably. On the flip side, sometimes meals right after an activity are too stressful too and it is then a good idea to let your child have some quiet time to unwind before trying a meal or a large snack.
If mealtime is too close to dinner, they may also be trying to buy some time before bed by taking a long time or refusing to eat. Try not to have mealtime too close to bedtime and refrain from extending how long dinner time is or having them eat alone after everyone else is done.
When Should You Worry?
The only time to worry about your child’s lack of appetite is if they begin to lose weight or have a lack of energy. You may notice them sleep more if they aren’t eating enough to keep that toddler energy going.
If you are at all concerned that this may be the case, setting up an appointment with your pediatrician to check their growth can help ease your concerns. Adding daily vitamins to their diet can also ensure they are getting the vitamins they need.
Another thing to keep an eye out for beyond not wanting to eat is difficulties when eating, like gagging, difficulties swallowing, or problems chewing. These all could indicate that there is a bigger issue. You may want to have your pediatrician check your child for certain issues like viruses, constipation, food sensitivity, gastrointestinal issues, and other potentially related conditions. Food sensitivities, or sensory issues, can be common in children with some form of neurodivergence. Working with their doctor and possibly also a therapist can help you determine what kinds of foods they can eat and enjoy eating. Once you have that list in hand, you can work on balancing out their nutritional needs within the bounds of the foods they will eat.
Sometimes, the issue is more straightforward, like teething or a toothache. Little children seem to be teething almost constantly. Giving them softer foods or cooler foods will help them be able to eat more while their gums and mouth is sore. In the case of a toothache, have a dentist check your child’s teeth out to make sure there aren’t any cavities or other dental problems.
If You Think it May Be an Eating Disorder:
Older children can sometimes develop an eating disorder for a variety of reasons. Knowing the signs of eating disorders is important for your child’s overall health. These signs include:
- Brittle Nails
- Dizziness or Fainting
- Extreme Weight Loss
- Hair Loss
- Impeded Growth
- Irregular Menstrual Cycles
- Low Body Temperature
If you think your child may have an eating disorder, contact their doctor as soon as possible.
When you are struggling with getting your child of any age to eat, you may feel like you’re the only person who deals with this. Talking to your doctor or other parents is certainly a first step, but here are some resources for connecting with both professionals and a community of people who can help:
You can also find tips and success stories, with ideas to help you determine what is the best course of action for you and your child.
Is your child not eating? Find out common reasons why and establish good eating practices that encourage them to eat during mealtime.