Why a fussy child is not eating
Many parents of fussy eaters are concerned about what and how much their child eats. It could be that the amount they consume has dropped dramatically. Or they are consistently refusing meals.
All of these are really worrying as a parent, so let’s look at some reasons they may not be eating, potential issues to look out for and then next week we will focus on ways we can support them to eat.
What is enough food?
In general, if our child is active, is gaining weight (along their own growth curve) and they seem well, they are getting enough volume.
Underlying problems preventing a child eating
There are some issues that frequently affect children’s eating and it’s good to eliminate these as reasons, or seek help if you recognise any of these signs in your child:
1. Oral motor skills. If you have a younger child there may be skill gaps, meaning they are unable to eat effectively.
Signs to look for during eating are choking, coughing, gagging, holding food in the mouth, food falling from the mouth and spitting out half chewed food.
2. Sensory challenges. Sometimes the feeling of certain food in the mouth is overwhelmingly challenging, occasionally to the point of pain. If this is the case it is logical that food is refused.
If you notice your child has sensory sensitivities in general this almost certainly will be affecting their eating. Children with ASD, ADHD or similar traits commonly have sensory sensitivities.
Interoception (the eighth sense) is used for determining internal body cues, like are we hungry. If the brain is not receiving signals to say that the body needs food, this can be a problem – although this is not common.
If your child consistently has one or two bites to eat and then is not hungry (and they are on a regular meal schedule and do not have snacks/ milky drinks between) this is something to check into.
NOTE: Many picky eaters seem disinterested in many foods or don’t eat very much. There is a difference between this and never feeling hungry.
3. Pain. If eating is uncomfortable, it’s not surprising that food is refused. Pain or discomfort may come from undiagnosed allergies making the tummy sore, acid reflux or even a regular illness like a sore throat.
4. Constipation. Having a big, uncomfortable mass in the bowels is never pleasant! As our digestive system is one big tube, if we are constipated it can make eating very unappealing.
If you suspect your child is constipated, getting it resolved as soon as possible is important, both to stop the problem getting worse and also so it doesn’t affect the eating.
5. Stress/trauma/big changes. Children who are faced with something challenging can frequently stop eating well. A big change could be a move, a parent going away for a while or a new baby in the family.
6. Eating disorders. If your child is older and is frequently not eating, it’s good to check whether this is due to worry about weight gain. If so, getting immediate support is important.
Reasons a child may not be eating
There are many reasons a child may be eating less or even refusing whole meals.
Some of this will be age dependent so I will flag that as we go through the list:
1. Volume is up and down. It’s quite normal for volumes eaten to fluctuate – especially for littlies. I think part of the problem is that we often have a portion size that is appropriate in our heads and would love our child to eat to that specification.
Not eating everything on the plate is very different from not eating. We often have expectations of what we believe a child should be eating which is larger than what in actuality they need. Their stomach is the size of their fist
The reality is that the amount we eat should be dependent on our energy needs so eating a lot one meal or one day and less the next is fine.
The busier we are, the more energy – in general – our body needs. If our child is less active then we may see a reduction in the volume of food eaten.
They also may eat in spurts. So, they may have a big breakfast and much smaller lunch and dinner.
2. Not hungry. Because children do not have big stomachs, it’s really easy to inadvertently prevent eating.
If they are drinking a lot of milk or juice between meals, they are getting both the calories they need and also taking up space in the tummy. It’s usually much easier to drink than eat so this is common.
Snacking between meals can prevent food being eaten at lunch or dinner. A child may have only a handful of crackers, but if this is before the meal it can easily kill the appetite.
Conversely, if our child is over hungry, that can also prevent food from being eaten.
3. Too distracted. If eating is not exciting or if a child has far more interesting things to do, food is probably not a priority.
Children frequently don’t eat well at Kindy or school as they have lots of other things going on. Eating is not top of the list of things to do.
Similarly, if at home and there are many things happening it can mean food is not eaten. Toddlers or children who are not enthusiastic eaters are particularly prone to distractions.
4. Tired/overstimulated. At the end of the day especially, children are frequently overtired and so food becomes less of a priority, particularly if it’s challenging.
Similarly, by the end of the day they are more likely to be overstimulated. A busy day and many sensory experiences can mean that by evening they are unable to cope as well with tasks.
5. Feeling pressured. Children who are uncomfortable or anxious around food can stop eating when they feel pressured to eat.
Pressure may not be an overt pushing someone to eat, it can be many other actions that we do consciously or inadvertently as we so desperately want our child to eat well.
It could be talking about what they eat, micromanaging, bribing, hovering or even just intently monitoring their eating.
6. Bored. Many fussy eaters have the same food day after day and this can become really boring. It is common for children who eat a narrow diet to drop foods they have previously eaten.
If you know exactly what will be served it’s paradoxically both comforting and boring at the same time!
7. No autonomy. Children can feel disempowered when they don’t feel they have a say in what’s happening.
If food is not particularly exciting to begin with, feeling that you are not able to make decisions as to what to eat, or never feel the food served is something you would choose it can become demotivating to eat.
Toddlers are in a developmental phase where they are seeking independence and testing boundaries. Not being able to make decisions can have negative repercussions.
8. Portion sizes. Having too much food on the plate can be overwhelming. Feeling that there is no way that you are able to eat it all can be disempowering. It may also mean a child feels they are failing.
Having a crammed lunchbox can also mean a child finds tackling it overwhelming.
9. Anxiety. If a child has generalised anxiety, this can often extend to eating as well.
When a child is a fussy eater, then anxiety frequently becomes a factor around food. Either an experience has been negative previously and they are anticipating that same uncomfortable experience, or they refuse as a protective measure.
Better to say no and stay safe, than take unnecessary risks.
10. Not well. Not eating is common if we’re not feeling top notch. It may not be something major but be enough to put a child off food for a period of time.
It’s always good to make sure there is nothing else happening if eating comes to a more abrupt stop.
Next week we will look at solutions for when your child isn’t eating.
However, if you are worried that your child is not eating enough or is lacking variety, feel free to book in for an initial appointment: https://calendly.com/judith-23/bookatimewithjudith?month=2022-03
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/