Rashmi Sahu had been struggling to get her toddler Aditi to eat properly ever since she resumed work.
“I faced no problems during breastfeeding and the weaning process. Her sudden aversion to food confused me,” said Rashmi at a consultation at Sitaram Bhartia Hospital in Delhi.
Rashmi was urged to not worry as it is a natural step in a child’s growth and independence.
“In most cases, a child develops a habit of picky-eating that comes and goes in phases. If your child’s growth is not affected then it is probably not associated with a medical condition,” explained Dr. Nidhi Rawal, Pediatric Gastroenterologist.
Anxious, Rashmi asked the doctor a bunch of questions around when to worry and what to do when children refuse to eat.
When Should I Worry if My Child Does Not Eat?
If your child shows the following symptoms, he/she may be suffering from a feeding disorder –
- Sudden change in eating habits that lasts longer than 30 days
- Choking or vomiting when eating
- Difficulty swallowing certain textures
- Fussy eater with habits like throwing tantrums at mealtimes, refusing to eat certain food groups, etc
In any of these situations, your pediatrician would refer the child to a Pediatric Gastroenterologist.
Why is my child becoming a picky eater?
To help address Rashmi’s anxiety, Dr. Nidhi explained the reasons behind picky eating habits.
There are 3 circumstances that could lead to your child resistant to the ‘act of being fed’ –
- Exaggerated Attention on Feeding
“As families are becoming more and more nuclear, we see multiple adults focusing on one child’s health and eating habits.”
The child is somehow expected to meet the parents’ perception of how much is enough. This extra attention creates unnecessary pressure on the child and he/she develops anxiety towards being force fed.
- Delusion of Independence
“As the child grows older, they develop a sense of ‘independence’ and a need to do things on their own. Making decisions on what they eat gives them a sense of accomplishment.”
They don’t like being fed at this stage. They would rather pick up food on their own and feed themselves.
This leads to a tussle with the care provider who is trying to retain control over how much the child is fed with minimum spilling.
- A Working Mother’s Guilt
As a working mother, you may develop feelings of guilt as you resume your professional work and are unable to be present to feed your child.
“In your absence, grandparents or caregivers sometimes have to chase after your child to get them to eat. When you come back home and try to ensure that you can feed the child on your own, the desperation only adds to the aversion.”
Rashmi realised she was feeling guilty as a working mother, which was affecting her toddler and making feeding a traumatic experience for her.
How to solve the picky eater problem?
Now that she understood the problem, Rashmi decided to focus on solving the issue
“How do you get a picky eater to eat, then?” asked Rashmi.
The doctor was quick to correct Rashmi – “Do not take ownership of feeding the child onto yourself. Your job is to make the food available for the child, and the onus of asking for the food lies on your toddler.”
Here are some steps you can take to encourage your child to eat:
- Meal-Time is family-time
Eating your meals together as a family as much as possible helps harbour good habits in your child.
“Avoid using screens such as phones, TV, tablets, etc. during meal time. Instead, read a story book during mealtime to make it more fun for your child.”
- Establish a disciplined routine
An important step towards healthy feeding is building a meal-time routine instead of running after the child through the day to make them eat.
“Parents need to create disciplined routines by following consistent meal-times and encouraging self-feeding.”
- Act as a good role model
Children have a habit of imitating their parents. If you try new foods yourself, they may be encouraged to do the same!
“Your child will be more inclined towards trying healthy foods if they see you eating them as well!”
- Respect their independence
You should recognizing that your child is going to develop a sense of independence as they grow.
“Allow them the autonomy to bathe themselves or eat on their own. In fact, use that to teach them self-feeding.”
Make foods available to them at the table instead of offering it to them. Don’t be afraid of them spilling their food – children only learn as they do things on their own!
- Avoid force-feeding!
Remember that forcing your child to eat will lead to them developing a distaste for the food.
There can be several reasons your child is refusing to eat. They might be a slow-eater, tired, or too full from mid-meal snacks to finish the food.
Identify the reason behind their picky eating instead of forcing them to eat.
- Offer new foods one at-a-time
You can try introducing new foods one at a time. If you offer many new foods at the same time, don’t be surprised if they get overwhelmed and reject the new dish immediately!
“Studies have shown that a new food needs to be offered at least 10 times before a child eats it. Make sure to serve something you know your child likes along with the new food.”
Introduce the system of ‘Trial Bite’ where a child needs to take at least one bite of the new food but has the freedom to refuse it.
- Make food fun!
“Make sure meal times are happy times and the food is irresistible for the child!”
Rashmi was encouraged to serve brightly coloured foods decorated attractively or arranged in a fun way on her child’s plate to make dinner fun.
If they are old enough, you can also involve your child in the food-making by giving them the smaller tasks. You should encourage them to create new tastes or try new combinations as you prepare meals together!
Rashmi decided to make meal-times something to look forward to for her child.
At their follow-up consultation, Rashmi happily told the doctor how Aditi had slowly started eating more as she put these tips to use!