elevating child care

Toddler Eating Issues (or Stuff Your Worries, Not Your Toddler)

It’s upsetting when something’s amiss with our child’s behavior, especially when it concerns eating. However, as this family is discovering, acting out of fear at mealtime only makes matters worse.

Hi Janet,

We are writing to you as we find ourselves facing a very frustrating situation. Here it is: We are having trouble during our 20 month old daughter Angie’s mealtimes and that is having a bad effect on me and Catherine.

She refuses to eat anything at all. It is the same food which we were giving her till last month, which she used to eat with a lot of gusto, but now she is turning her head away at the first instance, and even pushes the spoon away. My wife and I are having to resort to one of the following techniques to get her to eat:

• Point out all the interesting things in the house — dogs, cats and other things — distract her and shove food into her mouth

• Take her in our arms round and round the house, show her sights and smells and somehow shove food into her mouth.

Obviously, there are days this works and all is well, but on the days it doesn’t we end up screaming at her, telling her that we are doing so much for her and so on. (No, she might not understand, but you get the picture.)

We are at the end of our rope and, as usual, are turning to you. Please help!!!

Thanks a lot.

Regards,

Catherine
and Josh

Hi Catherine and Josh,

First, thank you for trusting me with your plea for help. As loving as I know your intentions are, my plea to you is to stop this strategy of diversion with your daughter. Your worry and frustration about her not eating is understandable, but in order to resolve the issue – believe it or not – I recommend doing something totally counterintuitive… trust her. Trust her to eat what her tummy needs when her tummy needs it, and don’t offer her one bite more than she requests.

Here’s why…

Healthy eating

Children typically go through appetite phases, and just like adults, sometimes they’re not hungry. Children are not naturally inclined to starve themselves, so assuming you’ve checked with your doctor for any medical reasons for your daughter’s loss of appetite, it is likely the result of these normal fluctuations. Problems arise when meals become power struggles instead of relaxing and enjoyable times to focus on food and each other. Struggles at mealtime can actually cause the very problem we are hoping to resolve – a child who won’t eat.

Healthy eating is about listening to our body’s signals. When we stop trusting our child to know her body and start trying to “get her to eat”, we risk disrupting her ability to read signals regarding hunger and fullness, which can potentially affect healthy eating in the near and distant future. Even subtle coaxing and encouragements (like congratulations for a clean plate) can thwart healthy eating, because mealtimes become about pleasing or displeasing parents rather than listening to one’s tummy and enjoying food.

Respect vs. manipulation

How does a child feel when she has food shoved into her mouth while she’s distracted? I know you don’t intend it as such, but this is a kind of assault. Certainly, she feels disrespected and manipulated, which then makes her feel distrust. Fooling children into compliance is a quick fix that can have long term consequences.

As benign as it may seem, I even object to “dream feeding” (breastfeeding or bottle feeding an asleep baby) which some experts advise for helping babies sleep longer through the night. I understand parents’ desperation for a few more hours of sleep, but I worry about doing things to a baby without her awareness. Would you want to be fed or have your nails or hair cut while you’re asleep? Babies need us to be open, honest and authentic, not sneaky and tricky. In relationships, honesty is everything.

Discouraging focus

Distracting a child not only undermines trust, it trains our child to be inattentive and unaware. Do we really want our children to get into the habit of disengagement? Will encouraging a child to be out-to-lunch at lunchtime affect her general ability to focus and concentrate? These sensitive early years have a profound effect on brain development, and we can’t be too careful.

More resistance

Toddlers are perceptive. When they feel manipulated they react with more resistance, which breeds more manipulation. This pits parent against child, when what we really desire is a close, trusting connection and partnership.

Parents know best, much of the time. But our baby is the one and only expert on the inner workings of her body and mind. Only your daughter knows (and will ever know) when she is hungry, what she would choose to eat, and how much she needs. So be clear about the behavior you expect when she eats (i.e., require that she sits and doesn’t throw food), present a couple of healthy food choices and then let go and let Angie be totally in charge of her tummy, even if it means she skips a meal or two. Stop working at it, and I guarantee she’ll stop refusing to eat.

Isn’t it a relief to know that you can trust her?

Warm wishes,

Janet

P.S. I’ve written much more on this subject (with many more specific suggestions) in Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting and also Dodging A Toddler Food Fight and Mindful Mouthfuls.

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37 Responses to “Toddler Eating Issues (or Stuff Your Worries, Not Your Toddler)”

  1. avatar Megan says:

    This is a great article! May I print it for my classroom? Last year I had a parent who really wanted me to push her (2yo)daughter to eat at lunch time and I felt very uncomfortable – caught between my responsibility to the child and the school’s policy of making parents happy if it’s “just a little thing”… having literature like this available would really help avoid situations like that in the future!

    • avatar janet says:

      Thanks, Megan. Yes, eating can be a sensitive issue for parents and definitely for toddlers. Please share it!

  2. avatar Megan says:

    Great. Thank you!

  3. avatar Susan says:

    you are so smart

  4. avatar lilly says:

    Dear Catherine and Josh,
    Trust your daughter! An almost identical situation happened to me with my son (now 23 months old) when he was 20 months, like your daughter. Always a wonderful eater and lover of all my homecooked foods, he suddenly didn’t want to eat anything (or very very little) even his favorite dish. This was extremely disconcerting to me, and I had sworn off long ago any tactics of distraction or manipulation due to the fact that my mother used many of those ways with me and as a result I adopted a very skewed relationship with food that took most of the early part of my adult life un-doing. And while I had sworn I would never coerce my child to do this, there I was seriously considering it. …and then… I didn’t. I trusted him, even those nights when he didn’t eat anything and I thought I’d be up at night hearing him cry for food or that he’d wake up earlier in the morning completely ravenous. Neither of those things happened and within two months he was back eating all of his favorites and being more adventurous with new foods too. I joked with a friend the other day when I said, “children aren’t inherently suicidal’, and by this I mean they are incredibly connected with their bodies and their needs and in any normal situation, they won’t starve themselves or deprive themselves of basic needs. Trust her, and I hope you are as surprised as I was! Thanks for bringing this discussion to light, Janet.

  5. avatar valia says:

    Hi, Janet!
    Thank you once more for your valuable advice! Although I know the answer beforehand, I still need to ask. My 11 months old daughter refuses to eat periodically and my doctor suggested I let her watch tv while eating… I’ve read loads of articles about the impact of passive activities etc. She is a brilliant doctor but I think I shouldn’t trust her on this one…

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi and thanks, Valia! Wow…I really have to disagree strongly with your doctor on this one. Beginning the habit of TV at mealtime and at 11 months old? I am stunned that a doctor would recommend that. Children need “face time” when they eat, not screen time! And can’t we trust a child to know what she needs? She may be a brilliant doctor, but I don’t believe she respects or understands babies.

      • Hear hear, Janet. We put doctors on a pedestal, but sometimes they really don’t get it. A friend of mine many years ago had a colicky baby and was becoming depressed and tearful- the doctor told her to go home and have a whiskey. That led to a lifelong dysfunctional relationship with alcohol which pretty much destroyed her life.

        Doctors are people too and make mistakes. Trust your instincts.

  6. avatar Beth says:

    Thanks Janet!

    Would you apply these same guidelines for the child just learning how to eat? For example, our 8-month old is just learning to eat solids – open her mouth and manipulate the food to swallow. She seems to do the same things, like refusing to open her mouth. However when she actually tastes some of the food, like on her lip or sticking just her tongue out (yes, it’s pretty funny) she likes it, but I sense she isn’t quite getting how this eating business works; like opening her mouth to get more.

    Same plan for the “just learning” crowd?

    **An aside to the others, I get how food can be such an issue too! It’s hard for me not to push because I see it as my “ticket to freedom” from the breast pump at work so I really want baby to eat more solid food.

    • avatar janet says:

      Beth, thanks for the great question (and I love the aside!). Yes, I think infants deserve the same patience and respect, don’t you? I remember introducing solids being a much slower, more gradual process (with at least one of kids) than I had expected. And it makes sense… The baby’s thinking, “Why put this stuff in my mouth?” It’s as if I gave you a piece of paper to put in your mouth that was actually food. It tasted okay, but totally different from anything you’d ever had before. That would be a little difficult to get used to, don’t you think? And then if I was pushy about it… Hmmm… I bet you wouldn’t like that. You’d be much more likely to try some if you trusted me because you knew I trusted you.

      I know how hard it is to be patient when you are dealing with the discomfort of pumping, but patience always pays off with children in the long run. Hang in there! :)

      • avatar Beth says:

        Thanks Janet!! I completely agree, I think infants deserve the same respect. It’s a mantra I’ve learned from you and keep repeating when interacting with my daughter.

        Thanks for the encouragement too. I hope you know how much your advice and blogs have shaped me as a new mother. Incredibly helpful and inspiring! Thank you from a new, and not yet confident mama! :)

        • avatar Leanne says:

          Hi Beth & Janet. there’s a method called “baby led weaning” (*meaning starting solids, not giving up milk)that may interest you. It’s basically putting appropriate food (eg cooked carrot sticks) in front of the child and letting them eat what they will, rather than spoon feeding puree. Of course they have to be closely monitored until they get the hang of chewing! http://www.babyledweaning.com/

  7. Fantastic- it’s great to know that others are getting this message out there. I wrote a blog post about this very issue some time ago and our advice is almost identical. You might enjoy reading it- whatever- it’s here. http://auntannieschildcare.blogspot.com/2011/01/food-failings-and-fussy-eaters.html

    I’m constantly amazed by the level of ignorance and bad advice and bad practice out there when it comes to food- thank you for countering it.

  8. avatar Jenna says:

    Just for the record, I would LOVE it if someone cut my hair and nails while I was sleeping. Then I wouldn’t have to sit still and waste my time with it while I was awake. You’re more than welcome to sneak into my house and do that for me any night. :)

    • avatar janet says:

      Good to know! Would you also like me to feed you while you’re sleeping? Personally, I like to enjoy my meals and not wake up wondering where those extra pounds came from. ;)

  9. avatar Josh says:

    Janet,

    Thanks for the mindful advice as ever.
    We are following it for a week… and guess what, the whole household is so much more peaceful, and Angie is just lapping it all up.
    Thank you for taking the time out to address our fears, and till the next crisis hits us, take care :)

    Regards,
    Vijay

    • avatar janet says:

      Josh, great news! I didn’t expect it to work that fast, but trust is a powerful thing. And as I was explaining to a parent in one of my classes who is struggling with eating issues, if you stop struggling, the struggles stop. Thank you for your update! :) Janet

  10. avatar Adela says:

    Janet, I discovered yous website yesterday in search for some advice on my parenting. I have a wonderful 2 1/2 year old girl that I feed by letting her watch cartoons on my computer and shoving food into her mouth. I have been doing this for over a year and it’s the only way I can get her to sit and eat, otherwise she’ll run about the house with me after her trying to trick her another bit of food in her mouth. She is not fat nor thin, she’s a healthy baby. The problem is that I would really like to break this bad habit and not have her associate cartoons with food, and I’d also like to minimize TV/cartoons time. This eating routine is also a problem when we go visit other families that have toddlers: the other kids usually sit in their seats and eat (with parent’s help of course), but mine would refuse to sit and she would go play and run and I would feed her in the meantime. I’d really appreciate if you could give me some practical advice on how I can teach my daughter to enjoy meals for what they are. Looking forward to your answer and thank you for your wonderful blog!

    Adela

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Adela! You can help your daughter break this habit, which I agree is not healthy for her. The important thing to realize is that you have created the habit and are continuing to reinforce it by coaxing her, running after her with food, etc. Once you stop doing that, your daughter will be able to settle down, eat autonomously as she should and “enjoy meals for what they are”.

      We fall into habits like this when we worry and/or falsely believe that it is up to us to “get” a child to eat. Children can be trusted to eat when hungry. Make it clear to your daughter that you expect her to sit while she eats and that she should get up as soon as she is finished. Even if she gets up after just one bite, put the food away. If she tries to leave the table holding food, hold her hand and the food before she gets a chance, and say, “You can go, but the food stays here.” Don’t scold or get angry. Be clear, relaxed and matter-of-fact. You make the rules; your daughter is in charge of her tummy. She is very capable of doing this.

      One more thing… Tell your daughter beforehand that mealtimes will be different. Tell her the rule about sitting and that you are going to enjoy sitting with her while she eats, even if it’s only for a moment.:)

  11. Thank you again for your reassurance Janet. It is always comforting to hear that our situation is not unique. For the best part of 6 months, our son hasn’t eaten dinner. At first we worried, then we thought he was eating too much in the afternoons, but when we looked at his diet there was nothing to suggest he was over snacking. Then we accepted that this is what his body tells him. He will eat some pickings but essentially he eats nothing at dinner time.

    After looking at his eating habits though (he eats an enormous breakfast and morning tea/lunch but is just not hungry after nap-time) we decided that if he were hungry he would eat. We also think it is important to have positive eating habits and a positive attitude towards food. The only way this can happen is if we continue to offer him healthy food and respecting that he know when he is hungry and when he isn’t.

    Thank you again for your wise words :)

    • avatar janet says:

      Kate, thank you so much… And yes, this is exactly how it works: “We also think it is important to have positive eating habits and a positive attitude towards food. The only way this can happen is if we continue to offer him healthy food and respecting that he know when he is hungry and when he isn’t.” Simple, isn’t it? :)

  12. avatar thoughtful one says:

    I just wanted to share a book that goes along the same lines as this article “How to Get Your Kid to Eat, But Not Too Much” by Ellyn Satter. It goes from birth into adulthood, and the point is you choose the foods you serve and when, your child chooses what and how much to eat. I first read it for my university feeding young children class and re-read it when my child was learning to eat. I have followed it’s principles and now have a 2 year old who is a very healthy eater – without any “work” on my part. I know a child’s personality will play a role in how well they eat, but with your and this book’s strategies, all children will eat what they need without the parent’s need to worry.

  13. avatar Courtney says:

    I have a question about this; what if the child is 5? He often turns his nose up at dinner…Okay, always! He never eats more that three coerced bites. We did try this “Let them eat when they want to” Method when he was little, because someone gave me this same advice. But now he’s a growing boy and started kindergarten and needs both ample sleep and ample nutrition. Is he too old to get away with turning down healthy foods in favor of the bread or fruits? (Which we always try to use as the encouragement for eating the proteins and vegetables.) Help?

    • avatar janet says:

      Most nutritional experts advise not using food as a “reward” for eating other kinds of food. The problem is that the “other” foods become even less desirable than they would be, because the child realizes that he or she is being bribed to eat them… I’m obviously not a doctor, but I would let this go. I would let my child live on bread and fruit for a while. Fruit contains some protein, did you know that?

  14. Supporting the child’s capacity to self regulate is most desireable. Most of us have been bullied and manipulated around food when we were little and our own issues make it challenging when our children exhibit strong preferences. Fasting is most theraputic and used to be a regular part of good health management. Animals ( and we are animals) rarely have a constant supply of food. Many health problems are from over eating.

  15. avatar Christina says:

    I had a very hard time getting my son to eat food, any food, after he stopped nursing at 21 months and I started giving him cow’s milk. It was all he would ask for, morning, noon, and night. I finally took him off dairy entirely and I can’t believe the difference! He eats. Everything! He has a wonderful appetite, and now I can actually trust his body. He was also very constipated and strained and went for many days with no bowel movement. Now he poops easily and with no pain. Make sure there is not a food allergy issue as well.

  16. avatar Ann says:

    Hi Janet,

    My 27 month old son does not have a problem with eating, in fact he eats plenty of plain bread, rice or pasta.

    How do I get him to eat / try other things?

    Also in regards to parties / outings, what happens when your child is too excited and completely does not eat? Is that normal?

    Ann

  17. avatar Melinda says:

    We are really struggling with our 16 month old. We were following this approach of laid back baby-led-weaning, and letting him tell us when he was done eating. But then over time we noticed that he was eating less and less, and soon he started to get very thin to the point that neighbors and even close friends were pulling me aside to make sure I realized he was too thin. I want to trust that he knows how much to eat, but is there ever a case where a toddler really doesn’t eat as much as he needs, and loses weight because he won’t eat? My husband wants to force the issue, and make him eat by sitting with him for hours if needs be, bite by bite, until he finishes his plate. I think this does more harm than good, but don’t have any other ideas since we have already tried letting him self regulate, and that ended up with an unhealthy toddler.

  18. avatar Teizeen Mohamedali says:

    My 15-month old daughter has a similar issue – refusing to eat or even taste food on some evenings during dinner time. She eats really well at day-care, so I think part of the problem is psychological – maybe she knows we might offer her alternatives if she doesn’t eat what is put in front of her first.

    We are trying not to cook ‘special foods’ for her anymore now that she has several teeth, and simply have her eat what we are eating for dinner especially since she has now been introduced to all types of foods. The part I am having a hard time with is sticking to this rule and accepting letting dinner end without her eating much of what we are eating – especially knowing that if I presented her with some healthy options she does like (there are a few fail-safe staples like yogurt, sweet potato, steamed carrots), she would eat them.

    Is it OK to let her ‘go hungry’ if she doesn’t eat what is there for dinner that day? I don’t believe it is a lack of appetite since she would eat other options if presented, but I also don’t want to get in the habit of what I feel is rewarding her lack of eating by giving her those alternatives, even they are healthy ones. Any advice?

  19. avatar Caitlin RD says:

    Thanks for your article Janet. This is exactly what Ellyn Satter (dietitian and child feeding guru) recommends- trusting your child and allowing them to regulate the ‘whether’ (whether they eat) and the ‘how much’, while the parent decides the ‘what’, ‘when’ and ‘where’ of eating. I’m also a dietitian working in this area and I have to constantly remind my clients to sit back, hand over the control and trust their child when it comes to eating. It’s not always easy but it’s all about long-term thinking vs. short-term gain.

  20. avatar Jennifer says:

    Hi Janet, We are struggling with our 15 month old during meal times. We all sit together for 3 meals a day. He constantly throws food off his highchair and barely eats two bites. The throwing food off the highchair has been happening for months now and is getting worse. We are afraid to go to restaurants for this reason. He knows sign language and signs to us when he is done. If we don’t get to him right away he will screech/whine/cry until we take him out of his highchair. Sometimes he is only sitting in his chair for 2 minutes then wants out. My husband and I have not even taken 2 bites out of our meal before this happens. I trust that he knows that he is not hungry and doesn’t want to eat. We say “I see you are telling us you are done. I will take you out of your highchair now.” We have tried taking the tray off the highchair so he is sitting right at the table with us and just eating with him sitting in our lap to see if that helps but the same things happens. He throws his food and then signs done and we let him play. We don’t want to stop eating our meal to clean up right away so we just leave the food on the floor to clean up when we finish our meal. What ends up happening is that he will eat the thrown food off the floor (which confuses me because he wouldn’t eat in his chair or with us holding him, but will eat off the floor) :/ We have even followed him around with our plate just so we can finish. Sometimes we have passed him a piece of food while sitting playing and he will take it and eat it then. We don’t know how to approach this. We are worried that he is just going to get used to wanting to play instead when it is actually meal time or that he is going to get used to eating while wandering around the house. ( we live in a small condo so there is no designated area that he can just play in by himself while we eat.)

    We don’t know what to do or say :/ We don’t want to create any bad habits…

    Do we make him to stay in his highchair until we are done or are we doing the right thing by taking him out when he signs done? Any tips for getting him to stop throwing food off his highchair? Should we sit him in his highchair for 3 meals a day or is it OK to let him graze while he plays/wonders around the house? We would love your help! Thank you.

    • avatar Leanne says:

      Hi Jennifer,
      Can I suggest sitting him at a kiddy sized table & chair to eat, and letting him come and go as he pleases. Just until he’s old enough to sit still for a bit longer. Some toddlers just don’t seem to have it in them to be confined for long enough to eat a meal, which I don’t think is a bad thing…. kids are designed to be on the move after all! If you don’t want food over the house you could try telling him that when he’s ready to eat, he needs to stay at the table. Even if he only comes back for one mouthful at a time. He will grow out of this stage eventually :) This may not work for you, but it’s all about trial and error with these things!
      Another thing to keep in mind, kids like to have something to rest their feet on when sitting (have you ever, as an adult, tried sitting with your feet dangling for long periods… it’s uncomfortable!) There are high chairs available that can be adjusted through their growing years so they always have a foot rest.

  21. avatar Leanne says:

    I love this article! I have been guilty of coercing many different children into eating over the years (I’m a nanny), just to make sure they’re getting “enough” food to thrive. But I’m a big believer that people have lost the ability to listen to our bodies, and part of this starts with learning to eat when we’re not hungry. I have come to realise more and more that when toddlers are hungry they will eat, and I try to work with that once I get to know their routine. ie I will offer healthy snacks at whatever time they ask for food, or I will keep their lunch until they are ready to eat it, rather than forcing it at prescribed times. I have often thought, when someone says their child eats like a horse at breakfast but not for the rest of the day…. why not try giving them their main meal first thing (ie meat and veg, like we have for dinner)?! Who says we have to have cereal for breakfast!

    I regularly find myself telling parents that it’s common for toddlers to barely eat for up to 6 months (as long as they’ve been checked medically of course!), and I really don’t know how they still have so much energy, but I’ve never seen one fade away yet! They are usually eating at some point in the day if you look closely though.

    The only problem I have noticed with this method is when parents freak out about the child not eating and offer them less healthy food “just so they’re eating something.” To me this is just another way of distracting them, and they end up eating because they’re offered unnaturally yummy food (have you ever polished off a whole pizza even though you knew you were stuffed already! I know I have!). This also makes it harder to steer them back towards good food as they get older. What do you think?

    Thanks for all your great articles, I have been following with interest :)

  22. avatar Kendall says:

    As always, your blog posts seem to have perfect timing for our family. My husband and I just had a conversation about our 2.5 yr old not eating dinner lately. He really wanted to “make” our LO eat, but I agree with trusting our little guy. I know that the more we try to push it, the more he will *passionately* resist – it’s nice to have this confirmed in your post.

    We decided, however, that it’s important for us as a family to set a standard for being present at mealtime, sitting at the dinner table and asking permission to leave. For him, we only request 5 minutes (during which he may or may not eat a little, and we talk about our day) and a “may I please leave the table?” He is very happy to do that. Then he goes to play while we eat, and he is learning that we will not come play too since it’s dinnertime and we are still eating.

  23. avatar Suzie says:

    Hi Janet, I’m going through the same thing with my 27 month old son and he won’t eat anything like meats, beans and lentils all those good nutrients that toddlers need. He does eat yogurts, cheese, eggs, fruits and of course he drinks his milk. But I still worry. His Dr. says he’s fine. His weight is 25 lbs. Any suggestions.. my husband say’s I worry to much!! It’s just because he’s so tiny and skinny.

  24. avatar Sarah says:

    Hi Janet my son is 27 months and doesn’t eat any home cooked dinners no fruits no veg etc, he doesn’t like lumpy textures, I’m so desperate it’s so hard I don’t know what to do as my 9 yr old was so easy going with food ,he also gags and gets sick at times ,cries also at times during meals, but other than that he is happy,healthy etc but I’m feeling useless Iv tried everything ..please any advice

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