Most parents are familiar with toddlers’ fussy and picky eating habits and their general aversion to food (also called food neophobia). Learning to eat is part of a child’s physical, emotional, and psychological development. Usually, picky eating is a phase that toddlers outgrow on their own.
Since most of their attention and energy are focused on exploring the world around them, toddlers naturally find the task of sitting and eating very boring, so they tend to avoid it. Common sense parenting indicates that this is typical behavior, which usually starts around two years of age when toddlers start walking and talking.
It is important to investigate toddlers’ chronic eating issues and to look for a solution. Most of the time, a parent’s instinct is the best guide in dealing with this problem, but a parenting consultant can help as well.
Although picky eating isn’t a sign of eating disorder, it is associated with a range of behavioral problems. —Researchers from the University of Dresden, Germany
When to Worry about Your Child’s Picky Eating
It’s natural for parents to worry about the health and physical well-being of their child. However, it can be difficult to distinguish between normal and fussy eating. If the toddler tries fewer than ten types of food in a year, refuses to try any new food in a month, has eaten only a small serving of food in an entire week, or has been losing weight, then it’s time to see a pediatrician.
At times, picky eating may be a sign of an eating disorder or an underlying issue or illness, such as acid reflux, dysphagia (difficulty swallowing food), gastroparesis, eosinophilic esophagitis, constipation, sensory issues, or difficulty chewing and swallowing. If the toddler gags or vomits constantly, refuses foods continually, is not gaining any weight, is losing weight rapidly, or is very dull and lethargic, then it’s time to seek additional help.
The Long-Term Consequences of Picky Eating
Research shows that children with picky eating habits, especially those younger than three years of age, are at an increased risk of being underweight. Having an aversion to food or having a strict food preference may lead to nutritional deficiencies like low levels of iron, vitamin D, calcium, and zinc in the body.
Furthermore, a paper in the Pediatrics medical journal indicates a possible link between selective and picky eating and depression or social anxiety. Whatever the cause, chronic picky eating should be examined properly by a specialist or parenting consultant.
What Kind of Help Does Your Picky Eater Need?
Sometimes, a pediatrician with training and experience can help parents determine what is causing their child’s eating habits and how his or her specific needs can be addressed. Pediatricians can also refer parents to a specialist or a parenting consultant.
Also, a registered dietitian, a nutritionist, or a pediatric feeding specialist at a clinic can evaluate the toddler’s eating habits and recommend therapeutic steps. A specialist uses detailed histories, physical examinations, weight measurements, and cross-analyses of height and growth charts to identify underlying problems, rule out acute and chronic illnesses, and recommend an appropriate diet or therapy.
For example, a child may be averse to certain food textures and may eat only a few foods, so a dietitian identifies food items to fortify the child’s existing diet. Specialists usually adopt a “food first, supplement additionally” approach so that toddlers learn to eat a normal and diverse diet eventually.
Likewise, a gastrointestinal (GI) specialist may recommend medication, surgery, or a particular nutritional supplement to add to the child’s diet. Children with severe gastric or metabolic disorders may get fitted with a gastrostomy tube (g-tub).
Changing a toddler’s unhealthy and picky eating habits can be hard, but with common sense parenting, the right intervention, treatment, positive reinforcement, time, and patience, it can be done.
- Jacobi, Corinna, Gabriele Schmitz, and W. Stewart Agras. “Is Picky Eating an Eating Disorder?.” International Journal of Eating Disorders 41, no. 7 (2008): 626–634. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/eat.20545/full
- Zucker, Nancy, William Copeland, Lauren Franz, Kimberly Carpenter, Lori Keeling, Adrian Angold, and Helen Egger. “Psychological and Psychosocial Impairment in Preschoolers with Selective Eating.” Pediatrics 136, no. 3 (2015): e582–e590. Retrieved from http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/136/3/e582.short
- Ekstein, Sivan, David Laniado, and Benjamin Glick. “Does Picky Eating Affect Weight-for-Length Measurements in Young Children?.” Clinical Pediatrics 49, no. 3 (2010): 217–220. Retrieved from http://www.jaacap.com/article/S0890-8567(09)60896-0/abstract