When a baby or toddler refuses certain foods or does not eat at regular mealtimes which adults are accustomed to, it can create tension and anxiety. Without an understanding of how young children eat, many parents find themselves disillusioned about feeding their child and misunderstand them as “fussy” eaters. This can lead to life-long issues around food.
This is the view of Dr Iqbal Karbanee, paediatrician and CEO of Paed-IQ BabyLine, who says that a lot of conflict arises when parents expect their children to conform to certain unfounded expectations around eating patterns and food preferences, which can be avoided. BabyLine is South Africa’s trusted telephonic medical advice service for the first 1000 days of a child’s life, starting from conception to birth and beyond.
“Childhood is a dynamic phase, and as a child grows and changes developmentally and physically, their nutritional requirements are also changing, ” says Karbanee.
He says that when it comes to butting heads with “fussy” eaters, it is often within the 18-month to 3-year-old category where feeding tantrums, food refusal and picky or select eating give parents headaches. He adds that parents must learn to be more dynamic in adapting to the unique needs of their child.
“Although feeding and nutrition should be viewed in the context of a child’s individuality, unfortunately we also have to consider the cultural and societal norms that come with the family, as well as the influence of others on our expectations of eating,” says Dr Karbanee.
He stresses the need for parents to understand that their young child is an individual, and as long as they fall within the basic developmental parameters, then they’re still within normal limits and doing fine.
Below he gives his top tips to help parents and children survive the very normal “fussy” eating phase:
- Patience is a virtue – parents may need to offer a certain food to a child on many separate occasions before they’ll stop rejecting it. Just keep trying while showing your child how much you enjoy the food yourself.
- A child’s stomach is only the size of their fist, so they’re only comfortable eating small portions of nutritious meals and snacks.
- Sometimes it’s also as if children go through certain phases where they crave more protein or more carbohydrate in their diet. Go with the flow and allow your child to eat when they are hungry, and don’t become stressed if they skip a meal here or there. Look at your child’s food intake over an entire week before worrying whether there’s a problem.
- Don’t give your child excess fluids like milk or juice or other snacks between meals. Allow them to develop that hunger so that they can eat in a healthier way.
- Keep mealtimes happy, positive and fun.
- Don’t react if your child refuses food. Provide positive feedback even when their food is only touched, smelled, licked or tasted.
- Parents should only seek professional help if their child is not drinking fluids, not growing well, and/or becoming anxious or upset around food. If you are uncertain whether your child’s fussy feeding behaviour is anything serious, consider phoning a reputable medical advice line, which can help you quickly understand whether or not you need to take your child to a doctor.
“Children eat very differently to adults. Adults seem to have regular meals at certain times, sometimes whether they’re hungry or not. We should actually aim to eat more like children, because they will eat only as much as they need to eat,” Dr Karbanee concludes.