Why is my child a picky eater?
With picky eating knowing what the problem is can often help with the solution.
To explain this, I will talk about a family I have worked with. They have as lovely little girl who is 4 and we will call her Mia*. From age one to two, she had constant ear infections and was on anti-biotics most of the time. When she was two it was discovered she was lactose intolerant, so she was taken off all dairy.
By this time, she was also super picky, and wouldn’t you be if lots of your eating experience was causing you extreme discomfort? Mia did not like eating and only ate really small amounts of food. And again, this is normal in a situation like this. Food is unpleasant therefore we cut down the amount we eat. In cutting down the amount we eat our body stops feeling as hungry so we can cope with eating less. We also discover that there are “safe” foods like crackers and pasta that do not make us feel unwell, so we become adamant that those are the only foods we want to eat. Very sensible really.
In this situation it is obvious what has gone wrong and so it is easier to understand how to fix it.
Now not everyone’s history is going to be as clear-cut as this but let us go through some of the common reasons picky eating starts and you may just go “that’s it, that’s my child”.
10 reasons why my child may be a picky eater
1) Autism spectrum disorder (ASD). If your child is on the spectrum, they are very likely to be picky. Statistics show that approx. 80% of children with ASD also have challenges around eating.
To have foods that are comfortable and ones that are not is very common. It is also typical for parents concerns around eating to be brushed off. As the correlation between eating challenges and ASD is so high it is often taken as a given.
For sure, often your job is going to be a lot harder, as rigidity of thought and discomfort with change make introducing new foods more of a challenge. But it can be done, and I have seen that over and over again.
2) Sensory sensitivities. This often goes hand in hand with ASD.
Finding the smell, texture, look or taste of foods overwhelming is something that many children struggle with. It may be certain foods that are particularly uncomfortable, or it may be a whole group of foods. For example, fruit may be a challenge as it has a wet and soft texture, or maybe it is chewy foods like meat.
If your child does find smells, textures, noise, crowds, motion, dirt, sand, sticky or clothing challenging in other areas, there is probably a sensory component to their eating hurdles.
Alternatively, your child may have the opposite, and be a sensory seeker, where they deliberately crave motion and create noise.
This too can impact on comfort around food and present its own challenges. I know parents who cannot give their child a non-metal straw as it will be chewed into pieces!
3) Anxiety. Many children have a level of anxiety around food, from mildly uncomfortable through to extreme distress. If anxiety is food related it can be managed with gentle strategies to give them more confidence and comfort.
If our child is generally anxious, this can easily impact on the food and indeed, it appears that many children “channel” their anxieties into the eating as a coping strategy. This makes tackling fussy eating challenges, that much more of a hurdle.
4) Allergies/intolerances. So many children have adverse reactions to all sorts of foods. Unfortunately, many of these go undiagnosed for long periods of time. As seen with the story of Mia, this can have a sizeable impact on what happens to our child’s eating.
If our child has any discomfort during or after eating, complains of constant headaches, stomach aches, has rashes, lots of ear infections etc. it may be worthwhile considering whether they have a food sensitivity.
If our child does have a confirmed allergy, then thinking whether there was a period where it was undiagnosed that may coincide with the start of picky eating can give us a clue as to whether this started things off on the wrong foot.
5) Slow development of gross or fine motor skills. If our child was slow to sit up, to use their fingers etc. this could have an impact on how they eat. Eating is a learned behaviour just like walking and talking and we learn things in a specific order. If due to a delay in other areas our eating learning has got out of sync or we’ve missed a step it can present all sorts of challenges (which incidentally can be overcome but could be the cause of the picky eating).
6) Other medical challenges. There are a host of medical reasons that can impact on eating for our child. This could be anything from reflux, to slow gastric emptying, to enlarged tonsils/adenoids.
If a tongue or lip tie is present it can have a real effect on the way children eat.
If our child seems to have challenges chewing (beyond meat, which is often hard for littlies!), has food falling out of their mouth, pockets food inside their cheeks or dribbles excessively, it could be good to have a quick check in with an expert.
Although this is a medical issue, it gets its own section as it is so common to find in children who struggle to eat. It is also a lot chicken and egg! Eating minimal amounts of fruit, vegetables and fibre and often filling up on processed foods that are constipating can create all sorts of digestive woes.
On the other hand, being constipated definitely affects how we feel and especially in regards to eating.
8) Trauma. There may be something in our child’s eating history that has made them wary of food or uncomfortable about eating. Sometimes parents can think back and pinpoint when the pickiness started and then link that to an event. It can be something quite small in the scheme of things. Getting burned by hot soup, gagging on some meat, having a cousin laugh at the way you chew, eating something and then vomiting. These turn food from a pleasure to a struggle. Triggers can be big or small but have life-long implications.
9) Life. None of us lives in a perfect world and there are so many ways that our circumstances can inadvertently cause hiccups. I have spoken to dozens of parents who know there is a divide between eating well and not for their child. It may have been a hospital stay (for them or another sibling/parent), a long holiday where foods were dramatically different, the arrival of a new baby and the upheaval that goes with it or a bereavement.
10) Power. Now this is my favourite. Who does not want to be in charge? If you can drive the bus, why not take the wheel? Many children use food as a bargaining tool and you know what, we are often defenceless. As parents and especially as a mother we just want to feed our children and make them happy. The feeding part is so hardwired.
If our children do not eat, we freak out and especially when they are young.
Faced with a child that is refusing food, even though obviously hungry, and it plays havoc with us emotionally. If they are small for their age all this gets magnified.
We are also often time and energy poor, so we make compromises to get through the day and enable everything to run smoothly. Who wants to have screaming at dinner or a child waking everyone in the night? I definitely do not!!
Now there are of course many other reasons for children becoming fussy but it’s good to think back to when your child first became picky and see if you can remember whether there was anything else happening at the time that may account for it.
If you think they were picky even as a baby, then there could be something additional in the picture causing that. Or, they could be a child just predestined to find food that much more challenging. Studies show that some babies are born not finding eating easy.
Next week we will look at ways we can support our child if they do tick some of these boxes.
(*Name changed for privacy).
Judith is mum to two boys, a tween and a teen and is the author of Creating Confident Eaters. 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 qualifying as a psychologist. I would love to understand more of the “why” behind fussy eating and to eventually spearhead research in this area.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/