Fussy eating is my fault!
“I feel like I should have done baby-led weaning like my friends. I was just so afraid that Ben would choke. But then when we served him foods that weren’t pureed he wasn’t interested in eating”.
“I wish I hadn’t done baby-led weaning; Lucy will still only eat foods that aren’t mixed together, and she hates anything that’s mushy or in a bowl”.
“Evan was eating okay until he got a stomach bug, and then everything seemed to change”.
“Abi never took to food. Right from the start she just wasn’t interested. Even when breastfeeding she would lose interest so quickly”.
When I ask parents why they believe their child struggles to eat I get a variety of answers. Many give me a list of all the things they feel they have done wrong and feel fussy eating is their fault.
Others really struggle to give an answer as food has just always seemed so challenging for their child. Or there seems to be a ‘before’ and ‘after’ with holidays or sickness or moving, for example responsible for the change.
Fussy eating is my fault or is it?
Parent guilt often creeps in in all areas of parenting. It’s natural to blame ourselves when things go wrong, especially with one of the things we feel is a core responsibility, like feeding.
But is it a parent’s fault?
Perhaps a good place to start is to establish when a child first starts to exhibit signs of selective eating.
There are a few key phases/periods when fussy eating seems to start. You can probably identify with one of these:
1. From baby. Your child never seemed to get into food. Right from the start they were not enthusiastic. They may even have been a baby who was uncomfortable with a change in formula, for example, or was distracted on the breast never seeming to want a full feed.
The feeding difficulties go way back seemingly to the start.
If this is the case for your child, there is research that supports feeding being different for some children right from birth.
2. Soon after food is introduced. Your child is not interested in transitioning from nursing to food. They just don’t seem to want to eat solids.
Or a baby takes food initially but soon after seems to find it difficult and/or is not interested in eating or only likes a limited range of foods.
Very early issues with food intake may be related to sensory sensitivities. There may also be problems due to skill deficits, medical issues or allergies and intolerances.
2. Toddler. Your child always had a limited range of foods they wanted. They reject certain foods right from the start.
Or, you had a baby who eats well and think “yep, we’ve got this”, then almost overnight your puree/family food loving child starts refusing everything and you find yourself down to only a few options.
3. Preschooler. Everything was going fine but then your child begins to refuse certain foods and you realise their menu is shrinking and you’re not sure how to stop this from happening.
4. Traumatic event/life. Something happens. Your child gets sick and spends two weeks hardly eating. When they are well again the whole eating landscape seems to have changed.
Or you go on holidays and the food is different and your child struggles to eat for the two weeks and again once home everything seems more challenging.
There are many different versions of this, but the outcome is the same, a child who was eating well and suddenly doesn’t seem able to.
5. Gradual. Baby eats well and all is going along as expected. Your child drops the odd food here and there but nothing drastic.
Suddenly you take inventory, and you realise that your child’s diet has become incredibly limited.
6. Compromise. This often happens during periods when life is particularly busy or stressful, for example, you have a new baby, a sibling who’s unwell or move house. There are too many plates spinning, so we are just coping.
Food becomes a lower priority and meals that are eaten easily are top of the list. It seems to happen so quickly, our veggie eating child is suddenly only accepting pasta, nuggets, and crackers.
Or your child is refusing a whole range of foods and you are fed up with wasting food, mealtime battles or an over hungry child before bed, so it’s logical to provide the meals that your child will eat.
When I look at these reasons for fussy eating I do not see ‘fault’ as a primary reason. Are there places where what a parent did could have changed aspects of the behaviour? Probably, but then if parents had the ability, time, and energy to do this then they would have.
I find ‘fault’ to be extremely unhelpful as a concept.
Feeling guilty does not help a child eat better and it certainly doesn’t support a parent to be empowered and confident.
I prefer to look at what can best be done now, by meeting a child where they are at.
So what can you do now?
Eating is complicated. It’s physical, social and psychological, which all impact on how comfortable we are around foods. There are a couple of key things to check are in place:
1. Environment. Is the feeding environment geared towards supporting progress? Have we made sure that we are using appropriate language? Are the dynamics and approach around food supportive of better eating? For example, are mealtimes relaxed and pleasurable?
2. Comfort. Are we consistently supporting our child to build a comfort level with new foods or previously eaten foods for our child?
3. Opportunity. Are we enabling our child to take steps forwards by gently and consistently offering foods that are not currently eaten? It’s almost impossible for a child to eat foods they are not regularly served.
Eating is complicated but making progress often doesn’t have to be.
If you are still thinking “fussy eating is my fault” then you can also be the solution. If you have the power to change a child’s eating trajectory to go one way, you also have the power to reverse it!
However, I prefer not to assign fault, but instead look at why eating has gone off track. It can be really helpful to know what has happened as that may indeed be part of the solution.
It can be helpful to know that you do have a child who finds certain sensory inputs uncomfortable, for example.
Or that your child had intolerances that makes some food uncomfortable to eat. Or that they found a change in environment difficult and expressed their lack of power to control outside influences through food restriction.
There are of course also children who for whatever reason just don’t find food or feeding easy or derive pleasure from it, just as there are children who do not like swimming or reading!
However, in none of these situations is assigning fault helpful.
Judith, MA Cantab (Cambridge University), Post Grad Dip Psychology (Massey University), is an AOTA accredited picky eating advisor and internationally certified nutritional therapist. She works with 100+ families every year resolving fussy eating and returning pleasure and joy to the meal table.
She is also mum to two boys and the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner. Her dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/