Toddler Won't Eat? How to Help Your Child Eat Better

There are few things more frustrating as a parent than when your toddler won’t eat. You want to help, but don’t know how to get your child to eat.

Reasons Your Toddler Won’t Eat

Normal development explains the primary reason that toddlers become difficult to feed. The energy needs for a toddler are substantially less than infants when evaluated from a per pound of weight basis. The growth and weight gain in the first two years of life starts to slow which translates into decreased intake and appetite.

Appetite is correlated with growth and toddlers are notorious for highly variable intakes. It may seem like some days your toddler is eating twice as much as normal and other days surviving off of bites of food. Expecting your child to have a consistent appetite is not reasonable. In general, toddlers are more in tune with their hunger and satiety cues than most adults.

Toddlers are also developing independence and are becoming increasingly curious about the world around them. This means at mealtimes, they will often be distracted and have a strong desire to express their independence which may take the form of refusing to eat dinner.


How to Help When Your Toddler Won’t Eat

Helping your toddler eat means that you need to recognize and support your child to develop curiosity about new foods and flavors. Typically parents focus most of their attention on how many bites are consumed, rather than focusing on encouraging their child to be a food explorer. While touching, smelling, licking food or smashing it on their head or arm may not seem like productive eating behaviors, this is how toddlers learn to eat.

When a toddler won’t eat the food you’ve served, it can be easy to resort to using pressure, bribes and other coercive approaches like sneaking vegetables in other foods to get your child to eat. While these tactics may work in the short term, they have negative long term effects and can create battles at meals that quickly create stress for the entire family.


What to Do When Toddler Won’t Eat

  1. Get messy - Toddlers are learning to eat. Wearing your food is part of the process of learning to eat that food. It is important to remember that your child has far less experience with food than you do. Expecting your toddler to excitedly put a new food in his mouth is unrealistic. A more normal reaction would be to first get comfortable looking at the food then perhaps exploring it with a finger. The next step may be smashing or spreading the food on his arm or hair. These are steps your toddler is taking towards eating the food, but are often unappreciated, as parents we focus on “take a bite.”

  2. Make food fun - To help your toddler eat new foods, use your most valuable tool, play. This can mean peek-a-boo or hiding a food under a napkin. It can be helping your child stack and topple over foods, or singing favorite songs with a food theme. Your toddler is learning to eat and you need to accept that it won’t be a neat and tidy stage of development. Encourage messy fun with food.

    In addition to play, think about how you present foods and get creative by cutting food into fun shapes with cookie cutters. Just as toddlers are drawn to colorful and engaging toys and activities, they will be drawn to foods that elicit their imagination and love of play.

  3. Trust your toddler’s appetite - It can be difficult to avoid encouragement when your toddler is not eating. As a parent your job is set the schedule for meals and snacks (when food is served), the location eating occurs (i.e. table, car, picnic at the park) and which foods are served. Your toddler’s job is to decide if they will eat from the food you have offered and how much.

    By using the power of play and fun, you can create interest in exploring new foods without pressure to eat. You might be surprised how effective messy meal and playtime at the table is for your picky toddler.

  4. Create a meal/snack routine - toddlers thrive with routine and this can be used to your advantage at meals and snacks. Be consistent with the steps you follow before meals, the way foods are presented and how you respond to behaviors. You child will feel more comfortable and have an easier time exploring unfamiliar foods when the rest of the meal environment is very predictable.

  5. Don’t attempt to reason with your toddler - toddlers are not capable of understanding cause and effect. Toddlers are in magical thinking and are not able to easily make the connections between events or apply to new situations. Fight magic with magic. Instead of trying to explain why they need to eat or offer reasons why eating vegetables is important, use play and fun to engage your toddler in exploring food.

  6. Implement a meal and snack schedule - Snacks are an important part of a child’s diet but can also create meal time difficulties when an unstructured approach is taken. A common reason why parents allow frequent snacks between meals is because their child doesn’t eat well at meals. However, this approach creates a situation where your child isn’t hungry at meals. Snacks serve to supplement meals, not to replace what wasn’t eaten at a meal. This article offers details on how to implement a snack schedule.

Other Reasons Toddler Won’t Eat

However, there are other reasons for a toddler not eating. Some children struggle with a feeding problem. This can occur for a number of reasons from prematurity, sensory processing or autism spectrum disorders as well as other problems related to the development of oral motor skills needed to master learning how to eat.

The incidence of pediatric feeding disorders is not well defined. However, research shows that in autism spectrum disorders, up to 90% struggle with food selectivity (1). For babies delivered extremely premature, the rates are about 25% (2).

It is important to note that picky eating or struggling to feed your toddler doesn’t mean your child has a feeding disorder. What the evidence does show is that picky eating is far more likely to occur in some populations and may be one of the first symptoms identified (3). Picky eating can be a symptom that requires more in-depth evaluation.

Typically many parents are told that picking eating is a phase and that a toddler not eating will “grow out of it” or will eat when they get hungry. This is not true for children with a pediatric feeding disorder. This resource compares common symptoms of problem feeding vs. picky eating and can be used to help you identify if your child has a more severe feeding problem.


Feeding Therapy for a Toddler Not Eating

Eating is a learned skill and for some children, additional support is needed to help them master this skill. Feeding is a highly intense experience from a sensory perspective. For some children that have under or over responsiveness to senses such as touch, vision and smell, learning the skills of feeding can be difficult.

The oral-motor demands for feeding are often not appreciated. Learning to maneuver the tongue, use teeth for chewing and positioning food in the mouth for a successful swallow can be a challenge for some children. This can often be masked as a picky eating or a preference for certain food textures or foods. Children that are struggling with oral-motor aspects of eating can be difficult to identify and many of the symptoms are subtle and may not be recognized in regular child visits.

Feeding disorders typically require intervention by skilled professionals. Feeding therapy can help your child develop skills needed to eat and provide you with education about feeding strategies. Typically feeding therapy is conducted in a clinic or can also be performed in home. Play-based feeding therapy with a focus on sensory exploration is a popular approach for toddlers.


Conclusion: Toddler Not Eating

A child refusing to eat is a frustrating experience. It is important to distinguish picky eating from problem feeding and seek out additional evaluation for your toddler if you are concerned the symptoms may indicate a feeding disorder.

Using the strategies presented can help your picky eater toddler explore new foods and develop confidence at meals. Eating is a learned behavior and takes time and practice for your child to develop.

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References:

1. Williams, K.E. et al (2010). Food refusal in children: A review of the literature. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 31, 625-633.

2. Samara, MR et al (2009). Eating problems at age 6 years in whole population sample of extremely preterm children. Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology.

3. Sharp, W.G. et al (2010). Pediatric feeding disorders: A quantitative synthesis of treatment outcomes. Clinical Child and Family Psychology, 13(4), 348-65.