Picky eater. All kids seem to be labeled this at one time or another. Often, a child’s resistance to try new foods or even sit at the table is brushed off as a right of passage through childhood. Normal, typical, nothing to worry about. For most children this is true. It IS a typical part of learning how to eat. It is absolutely normal for a young baby to make faces, gag, cough, cry, turn from the spoon, purse their lips, or generally be disinterested at mealtimes. It often takes several presentations of a new taste to get a baby to be interested in a new flavor. Toddlers can be even more challenging! Once they begin to assert their autonomy — watch out! Toddlers are notorious for refusing new foods based solely on color, smell, or any number of subjective reasons only they can understand. Because young children cannot be reasoned with, and because they have no use for health and nutrition education, mealtimes are often a major source of stress for parents.
Despite these truths, I really try to avoid using the term ‘picky eater’, especially when speaking with families who are struggling with behavior at meals. Picky eating is a vague label that doesn’t really address why an individual child is having a hard time with food. The best way to improve mealtimes in your home is to channel your inner behaviorist and conduct your own functional behavior assessment — observe the behavior, and figure out what it is a response to.
Many infants who grow into children with significant feeding issues have a history of pain associated with eating. This often occurs when reflux goes untreated for a long time, or allergies go undetected, or the reason for gastrointestinal symptoms (frequent retching, vomiting, diarrhea) is not identified. If your child is experiencing these types of symptoms, it is very important to figure out why, and if necessary, get them treated with the appropriate medical interventions. The sooner you figure out what is going on, the less likely your child is to develop a negative association with eating. Unfortunately, since reflux is very common in young children (and often resolves itself), anxious parents are often dismissed by their medical professionals. TODDLERS Parents of toddlers have an even more difficult time having conversations about their child’s eating. It is assumed that picky eating is a normal part of development, and many pediatricians do not take the time to listen carefully to concerned parents. Be an advocate for your child. Keep asking questions until you get answers! And remember, even if you discover that your child does have a medical diagnosis impacting on their experience of meals, once you know, you can treat them and move on to establish a more positive feeding experience.
If you and your pediatrician are confident that your child is not experiencing any pain or discomfort due to a medical issue, ask yourself these questions in regards to your child’s behavior at meals:
Are you being reasonable? Observe your child and make sure that they are capable of doing what you are asking of them. Are they able to use that fork you gave them? Can they chew that piece of green bean? Is their stomach really big enough to eat everything on their plate? You may need to adjust your expectations to improve your child’s behavior at meals. Are you being reliable? Do you have a routine for meals? Does your child know what you will expect of them each time they sit down to eat? Are you being consistent with other feeders? Are you and your spouse or partner, or other adults who feed your child following the same reasonable and reliable routine at meals? Children respond best to structure and knowing what is expected of them. Establish a routine, and be reasonable, reliable, and consistent.
It’s hard to know what is typical in a child’s behavior and what is not. Especially for new parents. Don’t be afraid to ask questions until you get the answers you need. But most importantly, trust yourself. If mealtime is a battle every.single.day. Or every.single.meal. You need some support and guidance. Sometimes all it takes is a little observation and a few simple changes in your expectations to improve meals — for you and your child.
If you find yourself struggling at meals or if you are unsure whether or not your child has true ‘feeding issues’, Toddlers and Tomatoes, LLC can help point you in the right direction!
Guest Contributor Kristin Quinn is the founder of Toddlers and Tomatoes, LLC, a consulting service for families struggling at meals. Kristin’s goal is to help parents gain control of their child’s behavior at mealtimes. To get more feeding tips and how Toddlers and Tomatoes can help you during those mealtime struggles join her on social media by following Kristin on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.