Feeding: Some children just won’t eat!

Food and parents

Food is the first basic necessity for all living beings. Healthy eating is vital for physical health and psychological wellness. Every child’s nutritional needs vary tremendously, but generally due to the rapid growth and changes in the body from childhood to puberty; optimal nutrition is vital for ensuring overall physical and emotional health (of children andtheir parents!). It is critically important for parents that their children make healthy nutritious food choices. Sadly this remains an unaccomplishable dream and a vast majority of parents struggle through childhood only trying to make their children eat. Behavior training and parenting becomes secondary. Feeding takes precedence over all else.

Pattern of food refusal

Food refusal is very common in children today.The terms essentially includes all behaviors that prevent adequate intake of nutritional, caloric as well as fluid needs of children. Children display a wide array of these behaviors: refusing to open their mouth, keeping food in the mouth, spitting it out, throwing food away, violently shaking their heads, kicking vehemently, screaming, crying, running away from the feeding venue, throwing a massive tantrum at the meal time and above all, vomiting it out after eating. It becomes habitual, mealtimes become a terrorizing moment for parents, children and whoever else is present in the vicinity then.

Why would kids refuse food?

The most valid explanation may be that they don’t like what is being out inside their mouth. It is important to prepare food for children keeping in mind their palatal requirements. Children have limited number of receptors on their tongue and thus they need greater taste elements like salt and sugar in order for them to appreciate the taste. Giving boiled and bland foods is a common practice in infancy but the practice must change as children grow. Today children have their own mind from the moment they are born. Strangely children develop taste for foods they must avoid: junk food gels well with their palate and their mind; but not with the nutritional practices that nutritionists and parents desire for their children.

Faulty conditioning

When children refuse to eat, parents get worked up and the drama begins. There is anger, frustration, swearing, screaming (parents frequently scream more than their children really!) and occasionally beating too. The mealtime now gets associated with negative incidents and children begin to abhor it. Often enough children are hungry but the strong negative associations that have been developed with food disallow them from enjoying a meal which may actually suit their taste and be of their liking. Children need to associate the mealtime with positive emotions. A happy family that sits together at a dinner table, with everyone eating together (children imitate eating by observational learning) engenders children who eat happily whatever is offered to them. Additionally the old saying goes: a family that eats together, sticks together; the advantages of kids eating at the same table with their parents are thus numerous and this easy strategy always does the trick.

Mending conditioning

If a small child is cuddled subsequent to the shaking the head after food is presented, it will be more likely that during the next meal the presentation of food will result in head shaking. At the same time if the child is let be, he or she will realize that food refusal does not bring in positive attention. Likewise if the meal time is followed by a fun family time together, toddlers and older children often get motivated to keep the meal time fun and peaceful. Often enough parents sing and dance in front of their children to make them eat. These kids are more than overjoyed in the clowning behavior and make it a point to not eat anywhere unless their parents repeat this behavior. Parents engender food refusal without realizing it at times.

What we can do

At MINDFRAMES we believe that the solution lies in identifying the underlying cause for refusal. It is important to rule out medical conditions, any stomach problems, oral ulcers or other conditions that make children refuse food. The pattern of refusal is studied and specific guidance for parents is offered. Behavior therapy protocols, interesting star charts, graded task assignments are planned to help children overcome the habit and eat healthy.

Why food refusal?

Reasons why kids refuse food

  • They are not hungry (common!)
  • They are probably very tired
  • They have had too much liquid
  • They have had high energy junk
  • Anemic kids have low appetite
  • Kids with constipation don’t eat
  • Medical problems like GE reflux
  • There is no set routine for meals
  • Too much distraction with toys
  • Distraction with TV, Phone or IPad
  • Anxious, sad, lonely, insecure
  • Mealtime experience is negative

Food refusal behaviors

Children find their own ways

  • Shaking their head rapidly
  • Not opening the mouth
  • Keeping food in the mouth
  • Spitting the food out
  • Throwing the utensils
  • Hitting the spoon when fed
  • Kicking at the mealtime
  • Screaming loudly, crying
  • Full blown temper tantrum
  • Gagging and vomiting the food

How you can help

It is not that difficult to make a child eat. Tips that are useful include:

  • Eat your meal with your child
  • Eat in a similar plate as the child
  • Eat the similar food as the child
  • Do not feed in front of the TV/IPad
  • Do not dance around your child
  • Do not follow the child to feed
  • Allow self feeding even if messy
  • Be patient, this too shall pass

Frequently Asked Questions

What is ‘eating behavior analysis’?
Eating behavior analysis is the method for understanding and studying food refusal behaviors. Sometimes children are reinforced by positive attention to their eating behaviors. If a child is cuddled subsequent to the child shaking a head when food is presented, it is more likely that during the next meal the presentation of food will result in head shaking. Breaking the pattern will break the refusal.