Dear Dr Doyin…My Baby Won’t Eat

I think I am losing my calm, I feel like a bad mother. My 14-month-old just won’t eat anything I offer. My Mum thinks I have spoilt her and suggests force feeding. Please, I need your advice.

Hello Mum,

I would like to reassure you that you are doing a great job at motherhood. The fact that you even wrote me this letter is evidence of how much of a caring mum you are.

As regards fussy eating, I want you to know that you are not alone. Most toddlers go through a phase of refusing to eat certain foods or at times, refusing to eat anything at all. Research has shown that food refusal and fussy eating are means for a toddler to demonstrate independence. It is commonest between the ages of 12-18 months. I hope that allays some of your anxiety.

However, there are a few tips -dos and don’ts- that I would like to share and I hope they would help you better navigate this phase.

TIPS TO FEEDING A CHILD WHO ISN’T CRAZY ABOUT FOOD

TIP 1: EAT TOGETHER

This must sound very basic I know. Eating together is an invaluable tool in promoting healthy eating in your little one. One cannot overemphasize the place of modeling when it comes to toddlers. If you eat unhealthy meals, your toddler is likely to follow suit. Eating together promotes a sense of belonging, stability and wellbeing.

TIP 2: CONSISTENT RESPONSE

The fussy eater should get the same response from each parent or caregiver. This consistency should be extended to all care settings: playgroup, crèche, grandparents etc.  This would help reinforce the message to your little one: No bad or good Cop when it comes to feeding; everyone offers the same healthy meals.

Part of consistency is also in not getting tired in trying out a variety of healthy foods. It has been estimated that you may need at least 10 – 15 attempts to introduce a new food successfully. I know it can be tiresome but please don’t quit just yet.

TIP 3: DO NOT USE FORCE

Whatever you do, please do not use force. Force feeding is a harmful practice and it poses serious medical dangers e.g aspiration, in which case food particles find their way down the air pipe instead of the food pipe because of their proximity, and this can result in respiratory difficulties and even death.  It also bears serious psychological consequences which may actually prolong the phase.

TIP 4:  USE POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT

Your little one already understands rewards, praise and attention. So an attempt at trying out a healthy food option should be met with a lot of praise. It is also important that we learn to give no attention (scolding, shouting, force feeding) to fussy eating. The lack of attention for this negative behavior should in time disincentive the behavior. Rewards also fall under positive reinforcement however, please do not use food as the reward. Example: “Eat your fruits and you would get some ice cream”. In this case, the disliked food (carrots)  becomes less desirable and the reward food (ice cream) gets elevated to a very high status.

TIP 5: PROPER MEAL PLANNING

Expose your child to a wide range of healthy food options. You may find developing a time table or keeping a food diary particularly helpful so you can ensure that all food classes are well represented.

Your little one needs to eat small but frequent meals to meet his or her nutritional needs. Because of this, it is recommended that children are offered 3 main meals and about 2 – 3 snacks a day. Water and milk are the only fluids that your little one needs (you could add 100% unsweetened fruit juice but no more than 4oz per day). Toddlers and children should be allowed to eat to appetite. Make food presentation as colorful as possible and when your little one is old enough, involve him or her in food shopping and preparing for mealtimes.

I hope you find these tips helpful as you enjoy this journey called motherhood. I would also like to add that despite highly variable food intake patterns from day to day, healthy children have a remarkable ability to meet their nutritional needs. Therefore, in the short term, fussy eating does not pose any significant health risk and the focus should therefore be on managing the phase properly, and possibly shortening its duration.

N.B: If your little one is refusing meals in totality and has accompanying symptoms such as a runny nose, high temperature, cough, or is generally withdrawn, please keep it in mind that an acute illness might be responsible for this and a visit to your GP/pediatrician should be scheduled. Also, if fussiness continues for a long time and/or you have concerns about your child’s growth and nutritional intake, consult your doctor.

 

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