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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.