When children won’t eat


The number of children who are described as ‘picky eaters’ seems to be huge. So many desperate parents dread mealtimes which become battle fields, with children resorting to tears, spitting out food, vomiting, throwing food on the floor and so on.  Parents fluctuate between clownish behaviours (‘Look, here comes a chook-chook into the tunnel …’), angry orders (‘If you don’t eat you can’t have a story’) and their own emotional tears of despair.

Why is feeding children such a problem? Often children start out by taking their solids happily but typically begin to refuse food around the age of one year.  The trouble starts with visits to the clinic or paediatrician and the child’s weight, head diameter and other measures are seen not to match the charts used to gauge ‘normal’ growth.

So is the problem our expectations created by perceptions of normality or the child’s seeming urge to starve themselves and suffer poor health throughout life?

It might well be our perceptions that need adjusting if you believe Dr Carlos Gonzalez.  His book isn’t new but it certainly carries a comforting message to families who are concerned about a reluctant young eater.

To start with, Dr Gonzalez remind us that children typically show a slowed growth rate at around one year and may remain small eaters until puberty – when they change and suddenly turn into ravenous fridge raiders.

He also challenges the emphasis placed on growth charts.  The percentile curves are drawn up according to statistics and don’t necessarily ‘fit’ the weight or height gain of an individual child.  Instead of fretting about each meal, allow your child to dictate what and how much she will eat.  If, after a couple of days, her weight has not dropped by 1 kg, you’ll know there is nothing to worry about.

Basically, the message is that babies don’t eat because they don’t need to or they are full. Certainly he advocates breastfeeding until the age of 2 years and if children are receiving breast milk, they don’t actually need much in the way of solids.  He believes that breastfeeding should be on demand and reminds us that breastfed babies will not accept solids as willingly as those who are bottle fed.

Babies tell you they are not hungry by non-verbal communication. Typically they will:

  • Turn their heads away and close their mouths
  • Accepting the food, chewing it a little bit and then spitting it out
  • Vomiting it up

Solids introduced at six months is advocated, but rather than present a dishful of food, offer a variety of foods at each meal. Don’t worry if they peck at one or more foods like a bird, they will be gradually becoming accustomed to the texture, smell and taste of the foods and benefit from taking in a few calories.

In brief, he lists some rules for food (p.112) as follows:

  1. Never force a child to eat
  2. Breastfeed exclusively for 6 months and then continue for 2 years and beyond
  3. Offer solids at six months, after breastfeeding. Bottle-fed babies should be having 500ml of formula a day
  4. Start with very small amounts of food (the tip of a teaspoon), without too many new foods at a time
  5. Limit foods containing gluten (i.e. give very small amounts)
  6. Drain cooked food
  7. Don’t add salt or sugar to foods
  8. Don’t be in a hurry to introduce allergenic foods, such as dairy, eggs, fish, soy, etc.

The book might be a refreshing and comforting approach to a problem that is enormous in many of our young families. Older parents often take a more relaxed approach to ‘picky’ and reluctant eaters. In fact, I’ve heard many interesting stories about such children. One concerns a young boy with a very restricted diet of virtually nothing but pasta and chips who developed into a keen and accomplished young cook after puberty, producing gourmet meals complete with a variety of vegetables!

The book might serve to encourage moms to feel better about the feeding situation. I’ve inserted the cover of the book, which is available from amazon books and kindle

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