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Why is my child so difficult to feed?!

Child refusing dinner

Food – it’s a fundamental of life, right? So why is my child so difficult to feed?

As parents we of course know what’s best for our children. We know that they really need a nap, despite their insistence that they’re not tired. We know that the nutritious lunch we made them is a better option then the playdough they are currently licking off their fingers. And we know that all these grey hairs are worth it and that someday they will thank us.

Despite this oracle persona as a parent, we often face uncertainties and concerns that can shatter our confidence and leave us feeling inadequate. For many of us, dealing with our child’s difficult eating behaviours is one of these concerns.

How common are childhood feeding concerns?

A recent study of Australian parents with young children showed that more than half are concerned about their child being a fussy eater. Around half are also concerned that their child does not eat enough fruits and vegetables, and that their child eats too many discretionary (“sometimes”) foods. Importantly, many parents indicated that child tantrums were one of the main barriers to addressing these concerns. Rest assured, it is possible to improve our children’s eating without the tantrums

Why is feeding kids such a challenge?

Firstly, difficult eating behaviours are a normal part of childhood and not a reflection of your parenting skills. Parents have been dealing with ‘fussy eating’ since the dawn of time. From an evolutionary perspective, rejection of new or unfamiliar foods is important to ensure potentially poisonous foods are avoided, while preference for sweet and fatty foods ensures energy needs are prioritised. Nowadays, with our ample supply of ‘safe’ energy-dense foods, these behaviours are far less beneficial for survival.

Secondly, despite being a completely natural process, eating is extremely complex. It involves a sophisticated co-ordination of motor skills and sensory processes all embedded within complicated (and often illogical) socio-cultural rules and norms. As adults we don’t really appreciate this complexity or the underpinning evolutionary logic and simply see reluctance to eat, food refusal and preference for sweet and fatty foods as something that can be negotiated through bribes and rewards.

While children appear to be highly skilled negotiators, their counter offers usually include crying, screaming, throwing or dropping food, or their all-time favourite – emotional manipulation – because of course we don’t want to see our little people heading to bed sad and hungry.

Why don’t these feeding strategies work?

Coercive feeding practices are destined to backfire when it comes to improving your child’s eating. Offering bribes, rewards and pressuring children to eat changes the way children view food – and not for the better.

An anxious eater will become more anxious when put under pressure. Bribes and rewards reinforce that certain foods are so disgusting that they need to be rewarded, while restricting desirable foods creates a ‘forbidden fruit’ effect, increasing their desirability.

How can we improve our child’s eating without tantrums?

Stop the negotiation! This does not mean we switch from negotiator to dictator, but rather we implement the division of responsibility.

Division of responsibility

In the division of responsibility parents take responsibility for what, when, and where a child eats (parent provides), while the child is trusted to take responsibility for how much and whether they eat (child decides).  This approach removes the pressure, helps position food neutrally, and, provided you stick to your responsibilities, alleviates the need for a tantrum – if they don’t want to eat, that’s OK.

I know you’re sceptical and your Mumma Bear instinct will want to kick in and make sure your child is eating, but this approach has proved effective in increasing children’s intake of fruits and vegetables and supporting children to self-regulate eating. Further to this, most children who are clinically assessed as ‘fussy eaters’ are healthy and have appropriate appetites for their age – so try not to worry.

Of course, if you are concerned seek medical advice, particularly if your child’s growth is faltering, your child eats fewer than 20 foods or avoids entire food groups (e.g. all vegetables), or if your child continues to be particularly anxious around food or mealtimes.Child enjoying dinner

Putting division of responsibility into practice

In practice, the division of responsibility can be quite hard, particularly if you are in a routine of mealtime drama and worry. Here are some tips to getting started:

Play it safe:

While it is the responsibility of the parent to decide what to serve, make sure a ‘safe’ option (a food that is accepted) is available too. If you know the only vegetable your child will currently eat is carrots, make carrots available to them along with the choice of one or two other vegetables. Try to have foods of different colour and texture available at each meal too and, if possible, let them serve themselves.

No alternatives:

Provided your child has had the opportunity to choose a ‘safe’ food and has been allowed as much of that as they like, no other alternatives should be offered. If they choose not to eat, that’s Ok, but remind them that they will have to wait until the next meal or snack time to eat.

Continue to offer:

If your child refused broccoli last week, it doesn’t mean they will this week. Children are fickle creatures and can change their mind rapidly… or not. Some children can need up to 20 exposures to a new food before they begin to try it, so be patient and don’t pressure!

Role Model:

When it comes to eating, you are the greatest role model a child has so make time to enjoying eating meals together.

Create a positive family food environment:

A positive family food environment is essential in helping children develop a positive relationship with food and mealtimes. This means creating a place where food is enjoyed, prepared and shared together as a social occasion without distractions such as the TV, phones or other gadgets, and without stress or tension – so if a child doesn’t want to eat something, stay calm.

While we like to think we know it all, parenting is a tough gig. When it comes to child-feeding we can be our own worst enemy, with our best intentions doing more harm than good. Although feeding children can be tiresome, remember that fussy eating is a normal developmental stage and that a division of responsibility sets clear guidelines to support you. Control what you can and let go of what you can’t.

Happy eating!

“Why Is My Child So Difficult To Feed?!” is a guest post by Nikki Ann Boswell, M Human Nutrition, The University of Queensland.

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