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Why does fussy eating occur and what can we do about it?

Updated: Jun 22, 2021

Everyone seems to know a child who is a picky eater, whether they were one, have one, or have just witnessed this behaviour at a meal -time. Its true, picky eating really is a super common childhood occurrence. But what causes it, and what we as parents can do about it, is often a mystery.

The short answer is, there is no definitive answer. Perhaps this is why something so common and seemingly benign can so frequently take a turn and become a long term issue. Without hard science or experts confidently pointing us in the right direction, or even letting us know before we become parents that this may happen, it’s no wonder parents can become lost.’

On top of the stress that mealtime battles can bring to the whole family, there can also be a whole day of worry, anticipating what is to come, and on top of worrying about the current status of our children’s nutrition, we may worry and even feel guilt over our own actions and reactions. Have I done it the right way? Said the wrong thing? Made it worse? Has how I’ve approached mealtimes made me responsible for the whole thing? And to add to all of the angst, will this continue to get even worse?

All these thoughts and feelings are as common as picky eating itself. But like the subject of our worries, being “common” does not make these any easier.

There are many different versions of feeding issues, and also varying terms. You may have heard fussy eating, picky eating, selective eating, Neophobia (Fear of new foods) and even the more extreme condition ARFID (Avoidant/Restrictive Feed Intake Disorder). ARFID is considered an eating disorder, however it differs greatly from other disorders of that type, being that it is about the food intake itself, and not caused by body dysmorphia.

This is one of the reasons that helping a child may be already hampered before our efforts begin- we may not even really know the extent of the issue. Between the ages of 2-5 years, it is considered a normal developmental stage for children to begin to want to start dropping foods they had in the past enjoyed without bother. This is due to them making a leap forward into being the person they will grow to become, causing them to want to assert themselves and make their own choices in their life. This frustration can lead to sleeping issues, meltdowns and seemingly irrational behaviours. Although living through this stage can be difficult and confusing, we may manage to concede that our little one doesn’t want to wear what we’ve chosen, or wants to have certain toys to play with at specific times. It’s far harder to “let behaviour go” when attached to it is worry that they will become malnourished or develop serious feeding issues.

The first step is to determine the nature and extent of the issue. Using questions like “when did this start?” “How many foods have we lost in this time?” and “how likely are they to try new things if they are in specific circumstances or presented with certain kinds of foods? We can then ask ourselves “Did something happen to trigger this?” “What exactly happens at mealtime?” to decide what might be driving or at least contributing to the issue. Some children drop some foods in a developmentally appropriate manner, and although they don’t eat anywhere near the varied, nutritious diet we would prefer, with the right attitude and approach they may grow back to being a fairly solid eater. When this is the case, all our panicking and second guessing our tactics are unnecessary.

However, for some children the issue reaches far deeper, and without early intervention, can lead to far more serious and less reversible issues. Not only need we worry about immediate malnourishment, but the fear and anxiety that can remain when eating is concerned throughout childhood and even into adulthood. This is when we really need to professional support, as the confidence alone that a solid plan can bring can make a big difference to our success. Anxiety is a big driver of many of these issues, not only about trying new foods, but sometimes about the pressure our child may perceive is on them to do so every meal time. At least having a steady plan will help alleviate our own anxiety, so we can be there for our child. It can be a very confusing time, but try to remember that you are not alone, we tend to only post our children’s successes online, so rest assured there are so many families with exactly the same worries as you, and most importantly, there can indeed be light at the end of the tunnel.

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