Why a very selective child is reluctant to try new foods
There are far more children that are very selective, and therefore by definition, unwilling to eat new foods than you would imagine. Experts around the world agree that 5-10% of ALL children have eating challenges so severe that they will not grow out of them without intervention.
This is backed up by my experience working with over 100 families per year and talking to many, many more.
Why are children very selective?
Children can be really selective for a variety of reasons. For some this develops as they age, for others it seems to be there right from the beginning.
Studies done on children who go on to be super selective have shown that for some, at two and four weeks old, they have different sucking patterns than babies who become competent eaters.
This means there is indeed an in-built factor in some children that makes it more challenging for them to eat easily. I have spoken to parents who confirm this, for example, having a baby that will not accept a change in formula. This is not something that is the “fault of the parent”.
Other children find food challenging from the start and yet others seem to find it progressively more difficult.
Some of the other common reasons for extreme selective eating can be:
1. ASD. Approximately 80% of children on the spectrum have food challenges.
2. Sensory sensitivities. A big co-factor with eating difficulties.
3. Allergies or food intolerances, especially if these go undiagnosed for a while.
4. Trauma around food.
5. Slow development.
7. Major life changes.
It’s also very easy for food to turn into a power struggle. Over time this can lead to a more and more restrictive diet.
Unfortunately, the longer a child follows a narrow diet, the harder it becomes to start to branch out.
However, I think it’s really valuable to understand where your child is coming from. One of the most common things I hear from parents is “I know he/she would like it if they just tried it”. Although this is probably the case it’s just not that simple, and consistently thinking like this can make things more difficult for both parent and child.
Understanding what’s happening for your child
Selective eating is super frustrating to cope with for parents. Watching a child consistently refuse to put food near their mouth, even those foods you are convinced they will love.
But they are not thinking of that food in the same way you are.
Your thought process, looking at, for example, a new chicken dish in a tomato sauce, goes something like this:
“I like chicken, I’m OK with tomatoes, I’ll have a little taste and if it’s OK I can have more. If it’s not nice, no problem as there are always the potatoes and salad to fill me up”.
It’s logical, its prefrontal cortex thinking. It’s going through a thought process.
A selective child looks and says “new, NO”. Or “ewwwww”. Logical thought is not happening. There is no pre-frontal cortex activation.
It’s a base of the brain, fight or flight/stay safe, gut reaction. They are viewing the new food (and this will depend on how anxious they are around food) as something to be feared, think spiders.
If that new food is spiders then why would you even, consider eating it? You’re not going through reasons why it may be nice as it’s spiders. Mum and dad talking about how they love it, you’ll love it, it’s delicious etc. – spiders!!
That is not silly, in fact, it’s the opposite, it’s very logical.
Every time a child says no, the brain rewards that decision by saying “well done, you stayed safe by not risking eating that food”.
Over time, it becomes an automatic no. Why even think, it’s new therefore it’s spiders.
This is also why many of the strategies that work for averagely picky eaters do not work for very selective eaters. “If you eat this you can have ice cream” – spiders. “If you don’t eat this, you’ll get hungry” – spiders.
What can we do?
All of this makes it sound very gloom and doom, but that’s not the case. Understanding where a child is coming from is a great first step.
It stops us getting as frustrated. Instead of being upset that our child is not trying a food, if we can look at it and think “spiders” it gives us empathy. It also enables us to stop pushing them to do something we would not even consider doing ourselves (spiders anyone??).
Then it’s a question of how to prevent everything new from seeming like spiders.
And of course, it will depend on how food anxious a child is as to how new foods are viewed. But, the spiders gut “no” reaction is not one that is uncommon among selective eaters.
I have organised a one-off free talk to address this on Good Friday at 1.00pm. If you’d like to participate (there will be time for questions) please hop over to the Creating Confident Eaters group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/222522335605100/
This group was created as additional support for parents of picky eaters of all ages and stages. There will be live videos each week on topics around eating/feeding and food challenges plus the opportunity to get support on specific issues.
We’d love to have you join us.
Also feel free to put up questions in advance on the post.
Judith is mum to two boys, a tween and a teen. My dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
I delight in showing parents how to get picky eaters eating in simple, gentle, practical steps that anyone can master. I graduated from Cambridge University and have qualifications in nutrition, parent education and am a trained telephone support worker for ParentHelpline. I am currently working towards a Masters degree in Psychology. I would love to understand more of the “why” behind fussy eating and to eventually spearhead research in this area.