It is normal to be very frustrated when you have spent time preparing a meal and your toddler simply refuses to eat it. Approximately 90% of children go through at least one lengthy phase of fussy eating. Eating habits and tastes are formed at an early stage therefore it is important to offer a variety of foods from the start. Learning to eat is like any other learning process – it takes time.
While it can be very annoying when your child rejects the food we prepare for them, their eating habits are hugely influenced by our reaction to the situation.
Don’t get emotional
This sounds easy in theory, but the practice of it is very hard. Usually by the time parents look for help about their child’s “fussy feeding” the patterns of conflict are well established and parents’ stress levels about food have usually soared to serious heights. If arguing with your child about eating or not eating has become a battle of wills, then you are probably finding that it’s one of the few areas where your child’s will is prevailing. Children realise very soon that there are few things they can control, one is what goes into their mouth and the other is what comes out. Children if left alone will regulate their own food intake to ensure that they are not left hungry and they will in general get enough energy to live, grow and move.
It is understandable that eating habits are worrying for parents, however it is important to park up emotions at mealtime. All parents become anxious when their children do not eat properly. Don’t pander to a restricted diet, instead offer a variety of balanced meals.
Try and develop a daily routine of three meals and two snacks around your toddlers sleeping pattern. Your child will then know when to expect food. This will also encourage your child to eat, Depending on the age of your child, you might want to explain to your child that you are no longer going to feed them, allow 15 -20 min for each meal and take the plate away even if the plate is not empty. Praise your child when he eats well or tries something new and try hiding your frustrations. This may mean that you must ignore some behaviour.
There is no magic solution to fixing a fussy feeder, especially if the pattern has been going on for some time. It takes a lot of patience and consistency to ensure parents turn the situation around. Once you decide to take control stick with it.
Knowledge of child growth and development will allay anxieties for parents. Young children vary in what and how much they are willing to eat. This unpredictability is due in part to their inconsistency about independence, and eating is an area where they can act out this confusion. So don’t be surprised if your child eats a large plate of food one day and practically nothing the next, loves parsnip on Monday and refuses it on Friday, will self-feed at one meal and wishes to be feed in the evening. Try to simply “go with the flow” and don’t take your fussy feeders habits too personally.
Children sometime between their second and third birthday become set in their ideas on just about everything – including the way food is prepared. Expect food fixations i.e. cheese first and then a slice of ham in a sandwich. Don’t see this as being stubborn. Toddlers have a fixation about the order of things in their world.
Food refusal is a normal phase that most toddlers pass through. Fear of new foods in the second year may be a survival mechanism to prevent increasingly mobile toddlers from poisoning themselves through eating anything and everything. Toddlers may limit the variety of foods they eat. This phase will normally pass without too much fuss but it may last for a few years and be more visible in some toddlers than in others. Your child may refuse food if it is new. Remember they need to taste it a few times to learn to like (up to 10 times) so offer it the next time you are eating it. Some children eat less than other children of similar age. If your child is growing and developing normally then it is most likely that he or she is taking the right quantity of food for his or her own needs. Don’t just look at the daily intake but look on previous week. It may be helpful to keep a food diary — you may be surprised at the amount of food your child actually takes.
Stay positive and focus on enjoying healthier options, and don’t dwell too much about the unhealthier choices. The important thing to remember with any changes is to try and persist with them; it can take up to 10 times before you succeed. The more frequently children can try healthier foods, the more likely they will eat them – but discuss and compromise a little as this is also part of role modelling a healthy approach.
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Grainne Ryan is a Midwife, Public Health Nurse and a Parenting Coach who graduated from UCC with an MSc in Health Services Management. Grainne presented ‘Baby on Board’ RTE 1, a lifestyle programme which focused on the everyday problems in family life and offered solutions to difficult situations in their own homes. She was the Parenting Coach on RTE’s Afternoon show and RTE’s Today and is a regular columnist with Irish Independent and Sunday World. Grainne delivers parenting programmes for 0-1 and 1-5 years. Grainne’s areas of interest are Post Natal Depression, Ante Natal Care, Post Natal Care, Child development and all aspects of Parenting.