The Confident Eater

How fussy eaters drown their appetite

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How fussy eaters drown their appetite

Generally, when we think of drinking milk, our first thought is babies. However, it’s really common for older fussy eaters to also prefer to drink milk than eat food.

In fact, it may not even be milk. Some children fill up the tummy with water, Up & Go’s or formula instead.

Unfortunately, drinking instead of eating can exacerbate or even cause picky eating.

Babies need milk to develop and grow. From 6 months food begins to supplement their milk intake. Then once a baby becomes a toddler at 12 months the reliance on milk shifts and food becomes the primary source of nutrition and calories.

Unfortunately, many children continue to rely on milk well after this age. It is also not unusual for parents to rely on formula to ensure their older child is getting all the nutrients they need.

A toddler’s stomach is the size of their fist so it’s very easy to fill up. Too much milk or even water and juice can drown their appetite.

Older children may have a bigger stomach, but they also have a greater capacity to drink and can still fill up too much space with liquid.

Making sure a child drinks enough water is important for optimal health.

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If you have a picky eater it’s really useful too, for helping to prevent constipation.

Sometimes though, the drinking tips from a positive into a negative.

What causes a fussy eater to drown their appetite?

1. Easy. Drinking is often easier for a child than eating, particularly when food is difficult. Children who find food a little more challenging will often fill an empty tummy with drinks instead of with food.

Yes, it’s important for a child to have enough to drink, but it’s important not to fill a hungry belly with liquid.

2. Timing. It may be about when a child drinks as much as how much.

Before snacks and meals, it’s good to keep an eye on how much a child is drinking. Even water can fill up a hungry tummy and it’s easy to drown their appetite.

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A tummy full of liquid suddenly doesn’t feel ready to eat our yummy dinner. Then an hour later the hungries hit! This can exacerbate picky eating as a child begins to skip meals and needs to fill up on snacks later.

Even during meals, it’s easy to fill the tummy with water or milk rather than food.

3. Comfort. Milk is fatty, filling, and even gives us a lovely warm feeling once drunk.

Add to this positive associations of comfort with babyhood and mummy, and milk is often a favourite for fussy eaters. It can easily take the place of food.

Milk is often craved so our child is not just replacing food with milk, but milk is favoured over food.

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Drinking from a bottle may increase these feelings of comfort. The sucking and the links to babyhood can exacerbate the desire for milk.

Why it’s important not to drown the appetite

Between starting solids and 2 years old is a crucial time for children for learning the foundational skills needed to eat well. Too much milk can interfere with this important learning.

Sucking from a bottle is particularly unhelpful. Learning to drink from a cup is important as it helps to move a child from baby sucking to more mature ways to drink. A good interim step between a bottle and an open cup can be a straw cup.

Practising chewing is important for building muscles in the mouth and jaw, and this is done by eating food. It also helps with mature chewing and swallowing patterns. Both bottles and pouches are unhelpful for supporting this development as both encourage sucking.

Why not to drown the appetite with milk

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After 12 months a child needs calcium. This can come from milk but also from other foods.

1 – 3-year-olds need 500mg per day. This is 1 ½ serves of dairy (or dairy substitute).

4 – 8-year-olds need 700mg per day.

1 serve of dairy =
1 cup of milk (250mls) = 295mg of calcium
200g of yoghurt or custard
2 slices cheese = 40g

Calcium can also be found in other foods, for example, baked beans!

Milk is an excellent source of calcium, protein, phosphorous, fats and B vitamins.

However, too much can also cause imbalances:
1. High fat = filling therefore replaces food.

2. Calcium = too much calcium can affect iron absorption. Iron is essential for proper growth and development.

3. Constipation = milk has no fibre and lots of fat so can be constipating. Too much milk can also replace foods that do contain fibre and therefore help with bowel movements.

What can you do to not drown the appetite

1. Time drinks. If your child seems to fill themselves up with drinks right before meals then it’s good to limit how much they drink in the lead up to meals. This is particularly true with milk or other fatty, filling drinks.

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2. Limit at meals. If your child comes to the table and drinks instead of eating, it is fine to limit how much is available at the table. Yes, we want to make sure our child is drinking well, but not at the expense of eating.

3. Not replace. It is really common for parents to use milk or formula to fill up children who are not eating enough, particularly at dinner.

Parents may also want to give their child milk or formula well past the toddler years as they are concerned that otherwise their child is not getting all the nutrients they need.

This is a tricky situation as it’s essential that children do get the right calories/ nutrients to develop and grow but it often becomes a chicken and egg dilemma. A child doesn’t eat because they know they will get their drink – which is easier for them than eating.

And although essential for long-term eating competence, taking away the milk/formula may not result in a big increase in food eaten as a child has not learned how to eat well enough to get adequate calories/nutrients through food.

If you are in the position where your child is reliant on drinking in order to take in enough calories/nutrients, then the best plan is usually to gradually reduce drinks to allow more space for foods. If your child is a toddler this alone can often support better eating.

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I know of many families who have cut down milk drinking and found that their child has a much bigger appetite. One mum found that as soon as she stopped giving her son a bottle in the night that he ate breakfast consistently.

Another mum cut out 2 of the 3 bottles her daughter was having and there was an immediate effect on how she approached food.

However, if you have an older child then it may be more difficult to make the transition. They may have more entrenched eating challenges and so getting support around helping them eat more at the same time as reducing the reliance on drinking is advisable.

The upsides of a child who likes to drink

How fussy eaters drown their appetites, Judith Yeabsley|Fussy Eating NZ, child making smoothie, #HowFussyEatersDrownTheirAppetite, # HowPickyEatersDrownTheirAppetite, #TryNewFoods, #TheConfidentEater, #FussyEatingNZ, #HelpForFussyEating, #HelpForFussyEaters, #FussyEater, #FussyEating, #PickyEater, #PickyEating, #SupportForFussyEaters, #SupportForPickyEaters, #CreatingConfidentEaters, #TryNewFood #PickyEatingNZ #HelpForPickyEaters, #HelpForPickyEating, #Wellington, #NZ, #JudithYeabsley

Moving swiftly on from the gloom and doom 😉

A child who likes to drink may also be a blessing. As it is often easier to drink than eat you may be able to use this to your advantage.

Can you support your child to add new things to the diet via drinks?

For example, if they like milky drinks can you gently transition to smoothies with more nutrient-dense ingredients?

If they drink juice can you find a V8 type drink that has vegetable juices as well. Or do you have access to a juicer so can create your own?

If you would like more support, feel free to book in for a no-cost initial chat via

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:

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