When your child suddenly refuses to eat some meals, snacks or not eat at all it can become very stressful and frustrating to try and get food into them. This often starts around the toddler years and gradually gets better.
Some reasons are common and can be dealt with easily but some issues are more complex, therefore taking more time to overcome and help your child to master eating better. I will explore 7 possible reasons why your child refuses to eat and what you can do to support them.
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What are 7 reasons why your child refuses to eat?
There are many reasons why your child suddenly refuses to eat, so by understanding some of these reasons it can help you to manage your child’s struggles.
One of them is food neophobia which is essentially a fear of trying new foods. It’s a normal phase typically starting around 2 – 3 yrs. (1). This has arisen from our ancestors, whereby we become wary of new foods as they are seen as unsafe to eat.
This phase will usually pass but for some children it can last throughout childhood. You can help your child by eating meals together and showing them that new foods are safe to eat and not so scary after all.
For some children there can be a particular sensory issue which prevents them or makes it difficult for a child to try new foods. The sensory issue could be a dislike of the texture, smell, colour, temperature, look or even a combination of these. Which then means the child rejects the food on the basis of this.
Sensory issues can be in the form of ‘under sensitive’ or ‘over sensitive’ to foods. So if a child is over sensitive it would feel like the texture is far more lumpy than it actually is. If they are under sensitive then they dont detect or taste the flavour of food as much as others. (2)
Sometimes there are underlying issues related to the sensory issues related to swallowing, chewing etc which are best to be checked out with a paediatrician or feeding specialist.
When your child has had a busy day or not slept well for whatever reason and they are really exhausted it can make it harder to eat. When we are really sleep deprived it alters our appetite regulating hormones (3) making us less hungry.
Instead your child is probably wanting to have a nap or good sleep first before appetite returns.
Childrens tastes are very different from adults because children have more taste buds. I am sure there are many foods you didn’t like as a child and then developed a taste for them when you went into adulthood. That is because children are more sensitive to bitter tastes and foods can taste a lot stronger. Therefore it’s harder to accept more bitter tastes such as vegetables when you’re younger.
Not only are tastes different as a child but foods need to look and smell good before they even get to taste the food. So bearing this in mind, making food look appealing can help your child with getting to taste new foods.
Appetite – are they just not hungry?
They may not eat because they say they are not hungry, which may be the case. Children usually have good interoception cues which means signals coming from their inner self such as knowing when they are hungry and when they are full. We have to learn to trust our children to let us know when they are full because eating when we are not hungry will mean eating more than they need.
Also toddlers appetites will vary from day to day due to growth spurts and changes in physical activity (4) meaning they may be hungry more some days compared to others.
Could they be affected by an illness which is making them not want to eat? common childhood issues like these can make it harder for a child to eat; sore throat or a cold could put them off their food, toothache, teething or a stomach bug.
Other issues like constipation (5) can reduce appetite or desire to eat.
Food sensitivity and there are lots of them (6) can make it uncomfortable or even cause pain to eat at the time or later.
If we apply pressure to eat then very often it can make the situation worse or your child could please you by eating the food. This is only because of the pressure to eat and not learning to actually like the food and eat it because they want to.
Not giving any kind of pressure to a child to eat is very difficult when you’re desperate for them to eat food.
Pressure can be in many forms such as:
- Coaxing the child – Asking them to try even a little bit of food is coaxing them
- Rewarding for eating a food or trying a food such as reward with a sticker or other food
- Bribing the child with other foods like pudding when they have eaten their main.
- Forcing them to eat
How to master getting my child to eat better?
If you know the reason/reasons why your child refuses to eat then you can start to work on helping them to address these issues and hopefully help them to eat better.
You might also like to check out my free guide: 3 tips to get your child to eat healthier! So your not worrying about their nutrition.
Helping a child with food neophobia
If you think your child suffers from food neophobia then there are lots of things you can try.
- Expose them to new foods all the time to desensitise them.
This will get them used to having these foods around them without putting pressure on them to eat them.
This can be done in a number of ways; getting them involved with food in the kitchen, outside in the garden or through play can make these foods seem less scary and more familiar.
If they can’t stand new foods on their plate then introduce a learning plate which they can take small steps in touching, smelling and interacting with before tasting.
- Don’t avoid new foods because that is the easy option. It may keep you both content in the short term to know they are eating and are happy but if you don’t expose them to new foods their diets will become limited.
- Eating together as a family will show your child that these new foods are safe to eat and they haven’t caused any harm so they are more likely to trust the foods and try them.
Don’t just cook up kid friendly foods they will eat.
It is certainly the easy option and ensures mealtimes are happy (I’m guilty of this too!). Kids will get used to knowing the same foods and again their diets become limited.
Kids are not able to choose a healthy balanced diet at such a young age. It is up to the parents to ensure they are having a healthy diet.
Helping a child with sensory hypersensitivity
If your child has an over sensitivity to certain foods (hypersensitivity) and you know which sense or senses they struggle with then you can work on desensitising them. This means slowing building up a familiarity with the new food so they are not so scary.
Sensory food play or messy play can really help children desensitize their senses. So make food fun in play such as using food in craft and cooking. (7)
For ideas on making food fun you may like to check out this blog.
How do I get my child to eat when they are tired?
The answer is you can’t! If they don’t want to eat because they are tired then it’s best to leave them until the next meal or snack time. They will make up for it at the next meal probably by eating more the next day.
If you find that they are struggling to eat an evening meal when they are tired you could make the main meal at lunchtime and a lighter meal for dinner.
How do I manage my child’s appetite?
Their appetite will vary from day to day so you will have to be guided by your child to tell you when they are hungry.
If you serve a meal and it’s too much for them, try reducing the portion size. You could also try letting them serve themselves so they only take as much as they want.
Think about when they last had a snack. Usually toddlers are hungry every few hours, so providing a healthy snack a few hours before a meal will mean they are hungry enough to eat.
How do I not give pressure to eat?
Instead of giving any kind of pressure to eat you simply serve them the portion or let them serve themselves. Then they can decide if they want to eat and how much they want to eat. Its best to make no comments about eating food at all, so zero pressure at the table.
If you are having trouble with getting your child to try certain textures or food groups they are struggling with then you could try working along the 6 steps to eating. These steps take the pressure of eating at mealtimes as you work at introducing foods at other times.
References given on request
If you found this useful and would like to dive deeper into all the feeding strategies to help overcome fussy eating, then look no further than my managing fussy eating children course.