Ways to support a fussy eater who is not eating
Last week on the blog we discussed the many reasons why a fussy child may not be eating.
This week let’s go through the list and look at ways we can support our child with the challenges that may prevent them eating widely and well.
Remember, although our child may not be eating the way we expect them to, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are not consuming enough calories. It is important to focus on whether they are tracking along their personal growth curve.
What to do about problems preventing a child eating
1. Oral motor skills. If your child struggles to move food effectively around in the mouth or chew, this can make eating difficult.
If you see ongoing choking, gagging, coughing, holding food in the mouth, spitting out half chewed food or having it fall out of the mouth, or excessive dribbling, it’s worth getting an evaluation.
Look for someone who specialises in oral motor skills, which is generally a speech language therapist who works with eating rather than speech.
2. Sensory challenges. These commonly underly eating challenges for children who have a rigid approach to food and/or only want to eat only certain colours, tastes or textures.
If your child struggles to smell or touch certain foods or gags as soon as one is put into the mouth, then they probably need support for sensory sensitivities.
The great news about sensory challenges, is that we can help our child overcome them with simple exercises that slot into family routines. Even better the ameliorative strategies do not involve eating.
If this is a factor in your child’s eating then the earlier it is tackled the better! You may also find that they are better able to cope with other sensory inputs and it improves their functioning in other areas.
For information about our new Support sensory sensitivities course, you can link here: https://theconfidenteater.com/support-sensory-sensitivities/
Parents are giving it 10/10
3. Pain. It is not uncommon for fussy eaters to begin refusing food because there is some underlying pain or discomfort from eating.
Undiagnosed food sensitivities or allergies and silent reflux are common culprits.
Creating a food diary and tracking exactly when sore tummies, rashes or other symptoms are noticed can be helpful for working out exactly what is causing the problems. Once you know what the triggers are it’s easier to find support.
4. Constipation. Having a full bowel is very uncomfortable. Unfortunately, long-term constipation can also cause ongoing problems as it stretches the bowel and prevents muscles working effectively.
Adding foods to the diet which help things move through like kiwi fruit and prunes can help, as can drinking more water.
We can also use a range of gentle strategies like putting feet on a stool, so the legs are higher than the body, a special massage and going to the toilet after exercise and eating. For more comprehensive ideas, you can link here: https://theconfidenteater.com/blog/family-support-for-picky-eating/constipation-and-picky-eating-a-marriage-needing-a-divorce/
5. Stress/trauma/big changes. Big changes or challenges can affect eating.
In this situation remaining very calm and being consistent is critical. Our child refusing food or failing to eat well is very worrying, however, the more anxious we are, the harder it is for them to eat.
We communicate our fears to our child, and it can make a temporary problem worse.
Instead, making sure mealtimes are stress and pressure free and that we are as relaxed as possible can be very supportive. If you would like help around this please get in touch: https://calendly.com/judith-23/bookatimewithjudith?month=2022-04
6. Volume is up and down. Eating the same amount at every meal and every day is not necessary.
If you are worried about how much your child is eating, firstly, create a food diary and note everything they eat through the day (including the handful of raisins or the 3 bites of toast) and do that for two weeks.
When we do this we often find they are eating more than we expected, it may just not be at the meal table.
If the amount has dropped dramatically or they seem to be losing weight, then it’s important to check in with the GP.
7. Not hungry. Children have small stomachs so it’s easy to fill them up. Drinks can be a culprit as they are easier to manage than foods. Milk is fatty and filling so often replaces food for young children.
Even water drunk in volume before a meal can take up valuable food space. Unfortunately, this also means that they are hungry half an hour later!
Similarly, if a child eats a handful of crackers before dinner it can mean they are not hungry enough to want to eat. Or, if they know that they will get their favourite snacks later in the evening if they haven’t eaten dinner, they can hold out for that.
Having routines in place where food/filling drinks are consumed only at designated meal or snack times is the best way to ensure that our child is hungry enough coming into meals.
If you do have routines in place and a child is consistently not hungry and eats only a few bites, they may not be reading their internal hunger cues and so may need some sensory support.
However, many picky eaters are not enthused about food and frequently get bored with their limited options. It’s important to differentiate between “I’d prefer not to eat this” and “I don’t feel hungry at all”.
For example, if your child is happy to eat countless crackers or ice cream, it’s not an appetite issue.
8. Too distracted. As discussed, food is often not a priority so distractions can prevent eating.
Removing distractions like TV or media from mealtimes can mean a short-term drop in volumes eaten, but long-term it makes a big difference to both volume and variety.
Putting into place a pre-dinner routine can be helpful.
9. Tired/overstimulated. Dinner is not the best place for feeding or learning experiences as we are all more tired at the end of a busy day.
Working on eating challenges earlier in the day is advisable, as is making dinner easy for our child. Sometimes this can be best done by eating earlier, if possible.
10. Feeling pressured. You are probably here as you’d like your child to eat more widely and well. Feeling like our child is not eating optimally can be stressful.
It can mean we inadvertently put pressure on them to eat. Even if we don’t do it consciously, they can pick up on our desire for them to eat.
Studies show however, that the more pressure we put on them, the less well they are likely to eat. The more relaxed we are, the more likely we are to eat, so that’s always our goal.
11. Bored. Many fussy eaters get bored with their limited diet. But paradoxically don’t want to branch out either!
Making small but manageable changes to foods they already eat can make a big difference.
Serving new foods – even when not eaten – is always valuable as it changes the way the plate looks and provides learning and eating opportunities.
12. No autonomy. We all want to have control over what we eat. Empowering our child so they feel they have more autonomy is important.
We can do this by involving them in more decisions around food and by letting them choose what goes onto the plate – with us in charge of what is served.
13. Portion sizes. Small is almost always easier to contemplate. Serving tiny portions with the chance to ask for more is more empowering than being faced with a plateful of food that you’re not sure you can manage.
Similarly, sending less in the lunchbox can be a positive, not a negative.
14. Anxiety. Many picky eaters feel anxious around meals and especially new foods.
Working gently to support them to feel more comfortable is a long-term project but it begins by following most of the suggestions listed above. Having calm, relaxed meals, for example.
15. Something unusual happening. If eating has stopped suddenly, then looking for reasons is important. Sometimes, the drop in food is sending us a clear message that there are issues that need to be addressed, like sickness or feeling unhappy at school.
If you would like more support, feel free to get in touch: https://calendly.com/judith-23/bookatimewithjudith?month=2022-04
Judith, MA Cantab, 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/