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Does Your Baby Know Best
When It Comes To Food?

As a nutritionist I have been giving food advice for many years so it came as a shock when my own daughter, Coco, 2, went from eating everything put in front of her as a baby to refusing food at about 14 months. Previous favourites, such as broccoli, anchovies and olives, were rejected in favour of a diet that comprised only plain pasta, peas and yogurt.

Why, I wanted to know, do children have phases of “fussy eating”?

Judy More, a paediatric dietitian, explained to me: “This stage often develops soon after toddlers have begun walking and can roam farther to investigate their environment.” Children are, quite naturally, afraid of new things at this stage. “The fear of new foods is probably a survival mechanism to prevent mobile young toddlers from harming themselves. If they were to have tasted any interesting looking berry on a bush they could well have poisoned themselves.”

It took me a while to grasp the idea that my baby was actually drawing on ancient survival techniques rather than deliberately winding me up by refusing nutritious meals, but understanding that did make our lives easier. However tempting force-feeding may seem, it can be counter-productive. I found that being patient was the best approach. Toddlers are not programmed to let themselves starve and if all they are eating is plain pasta, fromage frais and the odd pea, they will eat enough to survive, as monotonous as it seems to a parent at the time.

I was lucky, Coco’s “neophobia” lasted only a couple of months, though it was swiftly followed by a newfound power to say “no”. But with all fads and stages I discovered that the less I pandered, the more rapidly each period would pass.

From about the age of 3, however, toddlers can suddenly go off a once-loved food. Again, this could be a protection mechanism. Your child could be associating the food with something negative or that made him or her feel bad, such as seeing another child being sick.

If your toddler is able to communicate the idea that a food has become “horrible” to him or her, it is best to accept it. It is always possible that presenting it a little while later in a different form may restore the food to favour.

However, if you have an uneasy feeling that these causes do not explain your child’s fussy attitude, it is important to rule out other reasons for food refusal. Often children are not hungry at mealtimes because they are snacking too much in between. Perhaps they are bored with what is being offered, or possibly are not feeling great. Being tired or constipated, for example, can put them off food.

If eating patterns begin to affect normal growth, you need to consult your GP. You may be referred to a gastroenterologist to investigate a medical cause for food refusal or to a speech therapist to ensure that swallowing reflexes are intact. A psychologist may also help to get to the bottom of things.

If growth is normal, remember that eating with the family and seeing that you enjoy a wide variety of foods can be an invaluable learning tool for small children, helping them to grow to embrace, or at least to try, new and interesting textures and tastes. Research indicates that the more frequently different foods are offered to children the more likely they are to eat a varied diet later on and to widen and develop their palates for life.

Hopefully, both you and your children can pass through normal phases of fussiness with your and their physical and mental health intact.

For more information see; Teach yourself Feeding your Toddler by Judy More, Hodder Education.

February 19, 2010

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