What’s the deal with toddlers refusing to eat? Here’s 14 reasons why

A child who is upset when being fed by his dad

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    It can be incredibly frustrating when you’ve spent hours slaving over a hot stove to have your toddler reject their meal. But before you resort to encouraging them to eat or bribing them with a yummy dessert, let me explain why this happens.

    1. Growth.

    During the first year of life, babies grow really rapidly as I’m sure you’re aware. They double their birth weight by four to six months of age. And then they triple it by the time they get to their first birthday. That’s a massive growth spurt. But they don’t actually quadruple their birth weight until their second birthday, which means that this is actually quite a reduction of the rate of growth.

    A young girl dressed as a superhero measuring her height against a wall

    Because of that, their nutritional requirements are lower, and their appetite’s reduce as well. It stays like this until puberty starts, when rapid growth picks up again. That’s often why you might question why your little one, who as a baby ate everything you put in front of them, as a Toddler eats much less.

    It’s not uncommon for Toddlers to skip meals for this reason. It’s normal for them to come to the table and just poke and prod a few things and not be interested in eating. It’s part of their self-regulation of their food intake based on what their bodies actually need.

    2. Food Neophobia.

    This is a fear of trying new foods. It’s a developmental phase, and part of normal child development. It’s thought to be an evolutionary protective mechanism to prevent inquisitive young children from picking things up and putting them in their mouths and inadvertently poisoning themselves. It’s thought to stem from the hunter-gatherer days where people had to forage for their own foods.

    However, food neophobia is an actual true fear response, and you can’t fight it without really upsetting your child. You’ve just got to wait it out until that developmental phase has passed.

    But essentially, what it means is that your little one could be sat at the table, you present some food, they’re absolutely terrified of trying it and no matter what you do or say, entice or encourage, (which if you know me you’ll know I’m not a fan of), they are not going to eat the food.

    Watching you eat those foods and survive them however, will help your child understand that they are safe.

    So sitting together and sharing one family meal while role modelling what you want your child to do will help them get through the neophobic phase. Neophobia can last right through childhood.

    A young girl covering her mouth with both of her hands when being fed by her parent

    3. Your child’s temperament.

    If you have a Toddler who’s strong-willed, who knows their own mind and is determined, then they’re going to dig in their heels and refuse to eat food if they don’t want to or if you’ve asked them to. Often Toddlers at this stage are testing their boundaries and your limits. They want to be in control. They want to be in charge, all of the time. They’re incredibly narcissistic, the world revolves around them. They’re the centre of their own universe and that’s often why Toddlers aren’t able to share, and everything is “mine.”

    If you’ve got a strong-willed Toddler, they’re not going to eat food if they don’t want to. They’ve made up their mind and nothing is going to change it. They’ll do this in other aspects of their life as well such as fighting you when trying to strap them into the pushchair or car seat (this was exactly what my first baby Charlie did)!

     

    4. Taste.

    Babies and toddlers have mature, sweet taste buds. It’s another evolutionary survival mechanism to help them seek out breast milk when they’re born. But the bitter and sour taste buds aren’t mature yet. Vegetables for example, have many bitter compounds and are something that children have to learn to like. It doesn’t come naturally and they don’t automatically like those foods. Research has shown that 70% of pre-schoolers are sensitive to the bitter compounds that you find in fruits and vegetables, particularly green vegetables, which is why they’re often rejected. (1) (2)

    As well as having more mature sweet taste buds, children also just have more taste buds in general compared to adults which means that they taste things differently to the way we do. We might try something and think it’s delicious. They might try it and it might be too overpowering for them, particularly bitter flavoured foods like veg. Often parents say to me “if they would just have a mouthful, they would know it’s nice” but this might not necessarily follow through. Children may experience flavour in a different way to you.

    There’s also a genetic component to taste as well. We know that food preferences run in families because we tend to cook the food we like to eat but preference can be passed on through the genes as well. (3)

    Two young children sat side by side eating berries and looking at each other

    5. Still learning their eating & feeding skills.

    Children are still learning to eat right through the Toddler years, when self-feeding skills are being practiced. They’re exploring different foods and they’re learning to manage different textures.

    They’re also learning how to eat in different environments. That’s why sometimes children will eat better at nursery than they will at home or they’ll eat different foods at their grandparent’s house but if you present that same food in your own home, it might not be eaten. Young children can’t yet generalize, so what happens in one environment may not happen in another straight away. Both foods have to be mastered in both places.

    Some children become competent with eating quickly and some children don’t. Meat can sometimes be rejected by Toddlers because it requires quite a lot of chewing and can be hard work. Sometimes children will chew, and chew, and chew and then spit out. It’s part of them developing their eating skills and ultimately they just need more time to practice.

    A child’s dinner plate with nuggets, chips, carrots and peas next to a child’s drawing

    6. A preference for beige food.

    Have you ever wondered why foods like bread, crackers, rice cakes, breadsticks, chicken nuggets, fish fingers, hot dogs and chips are often requested and accepted over anything else? Well there’s a couple of things going on here. The chicken nuggets, fish fingers and hot dogs, are mechanically easier to eat because they’re processed. Your child doesn’t have to work as hard and chew them as much before they’re ready to be swallowed.

    Secondly the bread, chips, crackers, rice cake etc are all starchy carbohydrate foods. The brain’s preferred fuel source is carbohydrate and because brain development is really quite rapid during the toddler years, young children have a desire, or preference, for carbs. In a way they crave carbs for energy for their developing brains.

    In addition, shop-bought starchy carbs are always exactly the same. No matter whether you buy it tomorrow or you buy it in three months time, the texture and the taste is going to be the same. It’s predictable, they know what to expect. There’s not much chewing involved and they’re easy to eat and they get that energy that their brains are asking them for. It’s easy to understand why they’re preferred.

    A young girl with yoghurt around her mouth looking disgusted

    7. Appetite.

    Consider the timings of meals and snacks. Snacks that are too close to a meal time can take the edge off appetite and the desire to eat might be lost. I recommend leaving between two and a half to three hours in between meals and snacks for Toddlers, and school aged children can go a little bit longer; four hours or so. Even with a structured meal and snack routine, Toddlers will sometimes ask for more snacks in between times. A couple of things could be happening here. They could be undergoing a developmental leap which in turn requires more energy, especially if they’re asking for carbs. Or more often than not it can be because they are hungry, mostly likely because they didn’t eat well at the last meal.

    8. Pain.

    If your little one is teething for example, they’ll be experiencing discomfort and pain. Pain switches off appetite and you’ll see the same if they’re coming down with a bug or they’re just generally feeling under the weather, or, if they’ve fallen over and scraped their knee. All of these things can really have an impact on appetite and their food intake.

    With teething, I recommend keeping on top of the pain if you can with regular paracetamol to ensure that the pain doesn’t have a chance to rise, as the paracetamol wears off.

    A view from underneath a dining table looking at a child in a high chair chair with their legs hanging down

    9. Positioning.

    Children need to have really good core stability to be able to concentrate on the skills that are required for eating. Eating is a complex process and involves 8 different sensory components.

    Children need stability around their middle, around the backs of the legs and under their feet. A decent high chair that allows for hips, knees and feet to be supported at 90 degree angles is crucial. Often I see little legs dangling! That can be a real problem and something to address if you’ve got a child who’s not eating very well.

    A well supported highchair allows for core stability so that children can master proprioception or their ‘sense of self in space.’ This allows them to direct their efforts to the job in hand, eating rather than keeping themselves steady. It also really helps with things like learning how to use cutlery.

    If you have a high chair without a footrest, look for something that you can use instead. You could stack up a pile of boxes or textbooks under the chair or you could tie an elastic resistance band (that you might use for yoga) around the legs of the high chair so they’ve got something to rest on. Alternatively you can buy a Footsie. These are highchair foot rests that attach to any chair, with suction pods to hold them in exactly the right spot. If you enter TCN10 at the checkout, you’ll get 10% off!

    If you’re in the market for a new chair that will grow with your child, my favourite is the Stokke Tripp Trapp chair. It has a built-in footplate, and both this and the seat are adjustable and will last your child right through till their teenage years.

    A young girl feeding a teddy bear from her breakfast bowl

    10. Distractions.

    These work in the short-term. For example eating while watching the TV or iPad or bringing the toys to the table and having Mr. Dinosaur take a bite of dinner, however this amounts to mindless eating or eating not in response to hunger. Distractions can also be just having too many people in the room. If there’s lots going on and it’s noisy, that can put a little one off eating too. Also, silly conversations around the table such as “Which animal would you rather be?”

    These do get your child to eat in the short-term because it’s fun, but it’s mindless. Children will shovel food in, or if you’re feeding them, you can spoon food in because their mind is elsewhere, doing something else.

    But when children are eating mindlessly, they are not interacting with the food. There’s no learning happening, they are not experiencing the sensory properties of the food and they are not paying attention to their hunger or their fullness cues.

    This can lead to them either overeating as they grow up or it can lead to them not eating enough, simply because they haven’t learned how. It actually exacerbates fussy eating, making it worse and lasting longer.

    There’s no practice of cutlery, there’s no learning about how to move food around their mouths, there’s no acknowledgement of the taste, smell, texture or flavour and there’s no noticing whether they feel hungry or full. 

    Often the children I see in my private practice have had years of these experiences.

    A disinterested young boy being fed his spaghetti by his Mum.

    11.  Self feeding. 

    Another reason why Toddlers don’t eat is down to self-feeding.

    Undoubtedly, Toddlers will eat more if you’re loading up the spoon or the fork and you’re plopping it into their mouths. But actually, that’s not what we want them to do.

    Yes, absolutely, they won’t take in as much, but that’s not the aim. The aim of this is for them to become independent feeders, so they can scoop up food with a spoon, or spear food with their fork in response to those internal hunger and fullness cues from inside their body.

    They need to learn that those feelings they get in their tummy, tell them that they’re hungry and are taken away when they eat. We want them to be able to respond to those cues autonomously.

    Believe it or not children are actually good at doing this, it’s called self regulation and they are born with it. Even babies can do it.

    A breastfed baby will only feed when you put them to the breast if they need to. They simply won’t latch on otherwise. They are intuitively eating.

    As parents we actually teach our children to override this natural instinct when we spoon feed them, so letting them be independent in their eating whether that’s by using their hands or cutlery and trusting them is how we allow children to regain this self-regulation.

    12.  Pressure.

    Pressuring children to eat will turn off appetite completely.

    Often as parents, (and I’m guilty of this myself), we’re thinking about how can we get food into our children, but actually that shouldn’t be our objective.

    We worry that they will wake in the night, we worry that they wont get enough nutrition and will pick up every bug going, we worry that they might not grow and so I understand why all you might want them to do is eat.

    What pressure looks like might be offering them a reward. “If you eat your peas, you can have some ice cream for your pudding,” or, “If you take two more bites of that broccoli, I’ll let you have the iPad.” Or even just reminding children, “Well, you haven’t had very much of that tonight” or “Can you please eat some of your chicken?,” and punishment “There’ll be no stories at bedtime if you don’t finish your dinner.” 

    All of this amounts to pressure. And pressure results in a release of hormones that actually switch off appetite, physically stopping your child from wanting to eat.

    The same thing can happen when mealtimes become a battleground. For example, if there’s teasing between siblings or an argument at mealtimes, the hormone release simply cuts appetite dead.

    A young child that has fallen asleep in their highchair at the dining table

    13.  Tiredness.

    Dinner is often the worst meal of the day for many children, from Toddlers to pre-teens and that’s because they are tired. It makes sense, it’s the end of a busy day and they’re getting ready for bed.

    I often see families where breakfast goes down really well, kids might do OK at lunch but by dinner they don’t eat much. 

    In reality toddlers just can’t be bothered anymore, it’s too much effort. 

    That’s when they’re going to gravitate towards those beige foods, that’s when they’re going to ask for chicken nuggets and hot dogs that are pre-processed so they don’t have to chew as much. 

    Make life easier for yourself, switch meals around. 

    Make lunch a bit more substantial and dinner something a bit more low key like pizza, scrambled eggs or beans on toast. 

    Sandwiches can be just as nutritious as a cooked meal. Their dinner doesn’t always need to be a hot one.

    14.  Activity levels.

    If your Toddler has had a busy day, whether that’s running around the park, or they’ve been using their brain such as if they’ve had new experiences, visited somewhere new, if they’ve mastered a new skill like a puzzle, that can lead to an increase in appetite.

    Conversely, if it’s been a rainy day, you’ve spent the day at home with the TV on, they might not eat so much. That’s purely down to energy expenditure. If they haven’t used a lot of energy, they’re not going to need to refuel themselves quite as much. This is another reason why appetites vary and fluctuate on a daily basis!

    Why is a sensory preference not listed as a reason why children don’t eat?

    This is a question that gets asked a lot!  And the true answer is that sensory reasons are involved throughout most of the 14 reasons!  

    We use our senses to experience food and eating. Your toddler is still learning to eat by using their senses every day, whether it is the texture or taste of a food, their activity levels and appetite, or a desire for those predictable beige foods that are easy to eat. 

    Likewise pain, their position on their chair and getting mixed up with their internal body feelings are also sensory related.

    If your child has sensory related fussy eating it’s likely that there have always been signs but you may not have understood their link. That’s not surprising, there’s very little information for parents on this topic. 

    If you are worried that your child may have more than just typical fussy eating, then please take my quiz, which will help you identify what’s going on for them.

    So there you have it!

    I hope that helps you understand a little more about what’s going on when your Toddler isn’t eating well.

    If you want to learn more about how to get your toddler to eat, you can read my blog all about it here.

    If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve learned here then I’d like to introduce you to the Happy Healthy Eaters Club. This is a members-only club where you’ll learn how to raise a child who skips to the table (without you having to ask 50 times first), sits down, and happily munches away.

    The club will teach you all about food and parenting techniques so that you can nip fussy eating in the bud (or prevent it before it begins) and make you’ll feel safe in the knowledge your child has eaten their nutrients, that they’ll sleep well, grow healthy bones and brains, and not pick up all those bugs.

    Your parenting around food means that your little one will learn to be excited to try new foods, family mealtimes are a breeze and there’s not a reward, bribe, or iPad insight and you haven’t spent hours in the kitchen cooking up different meals for everyone either. And I promise you… you’ll no longer be scraping rejected food from the floor! Here’s the link to learn more: https://www.thechildrensnutritionist.com/hhec-open

    Sarah Almond Bushell Registered Dietitian and Children's Nutritionist
    Sarah Almond Bushell MPhil, BSc (Hons) RD MBDA – Registered Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist

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    meet Sarah

    I’m Sarah, a Registered Dietitian, Children’s Nutritionist and mummy from East Sussex. My blog is to guide & inspire you with information about weaning, nutrition, food and toddler feeding. Learn more about me here.

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