Help! My child still won't eat

Most toddlers go through a fussy stage with their eating. However, it’s a whole different ball game when your eight-year-old child still only eats a handful of foods.

Most parents in this situation have tried a million strategies to get their child to eat but find that nothing seems to make any difference. All that happens is everyone gets more and more stressed and relationships start to be impacted.

So, if you’re screaming “Help! My child still won’t eat!”, I want to share my survival strategies with you.

Fussy child

Don’t beat yourself up

When I became a parent, encouraging my kids to grow, cook and eat a balanced, healthy diet was high up on my agenda. However, many years down the parenting track I am yet to experience the joy of this healthy eating parenting utopia and, believe me, I’ve tried it all.

Before you click out thinking “Why should I listen to you then?”, I need to tell you that there are many good reasons why some children will continue to struggle to eat a variety of foods and that helping them is a long-term labour of love.

Take time to understand your child

There are three key reasons why children struggle to cope with new foods:

  • They are quite literally afraid of new foods.

This may be associated with being coerced into eating foods that they found unpleasant when they were younger or with other unpleasant early years experiences such as illness or grief, which they associate with food.

However, sometimes there is no particular reason that anyone can detect. If you did try some coercing in the early days remember you did the same as everyone else. You didn’t know then that your child would have a bad reaction to it, so don’t wallow in guilt.

  • They were not introduced to enough variety early on.

If you were going through a tough time when weaning your child and, on reflection, would have liked to have done some things differently, again, please don’t blame yourself. Life is complicated and sometimes things don’t turn out as we imagined.

  • They have sensory processing difficulties.

This means that sensory signals don’t get processed normally and don’t trigger the usual responses. Kids who experience this over-respond or under-respond to sensory information and some crave powerful sensory experiences.

The problem can affect all senses or just one or two. Touch, smell, sight and taste are all involved in eating so if any of these senses are affected then it can impact eating and drinking. These symptoms are often seen in people with ADHD or autism or other neuro-developmental conditions but they can be seen in people with no other diagnoses.

Get the foundations right

Whatever your individual set of circumstances there are five things you need to get in place:

1. Never force-feed your child or put them under pressure to eat something they refuse.

Saying, “If you don’t eat this then there’s no snack/pudding” just heightens stress and makes it more likely that the food will be rejected however much the snack or pudding is desired. It also gives the message that sweet/fatty foods are yummy but this other stuff is just what we have to eat. We want our children to enjoy a varied diet.

2. Don’t put new foods on the same plate as foods that are already accepted.

You may end up with the whole lot getting rejected. Try new foods in between meals instead.

3. Don’t assume that if your child is hungry they will eat.

I have clients whose children ate virtually nothing for weeks when they imposed a zero tolerance regime in relation to their child’s fussiness. The most important thing is that your child must gain weight and grow normally. Calories and protein are the priorities under these circumstances.

This may mean that you have to feed your child foods you consider unhealthy - maybe because they have a lot of fat and sugar. Reducing their risk of disease in later life is important and the goal is to eventually achieve a healthy diet but growth has to be number one. An all-around multivitamin and mineral supplement may be an important addition to the diet until you can increase the variety.

4. Let your child know that you are there to help them and you believe they will get there.

Your child will probably be aware that their diet is not very good and this might make them feel guilty or inadequate. For example, you could say something like: “Dairy foods are great for your bones, it’s going to be great when you can eat them. I’m going to stick with you and help and make sure you get what your body needs.”

That way you get to give a healthy eating message, whilst also offering reassurance.

5. Get friends, family and your child’s school on board with this too.

Kids spend a lot of time eating outside the home and you don’t want all your good work being undone every day.

Happy child cooking

Get professional help

Depending on your issues, it may help to have an assessment from a child psychiatrist to understand if there are any specific diagnoses. If you think your child has fear issues, a child psychologist can help and occupational therapists can offer support with sensory issues.

Additionally, assessment, advice and support from an appropriately experienced dietitian is key. Your dietitian will be able to identify any nutritional deficiencies, advise how best to correct them given the challenges you face and provide much more detailed and personalised strategies to help you with the foundations set out above.

These are just my survival tips - the aim is to get from surviving to thriving so please do get help.

Nutritionist Resource is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Stephanie Fade

Dr Stephanie Fade is an experienced dietitian and lover of food, science and health. She has a BSc in nutrition (first class honours), a postgraduate diploma in dietetics and a PhD. She is passionate about busting nutrition myths and empowering people to make well informed and positive choices about what they eat, drink and feed their families.… Read more

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