Picky eaters are everywhere these days. Children go through a period of typical picky eating. However, some children’s picky eating spirals and causes a lot of stress for parents and the eater themselves. I’m here to break down 5 main reasons children turn into picky eaters and how you can help them thrive again at mealtimes.
As a pediatric feeding therapist and Mom to a former extreme picky eater I knew there was more to my child’s picky eating then what was on the surface. Picky eating has many layers and often some of these layers go unidentified for a period of time. Thus, making picky eating the beast that it is.
As a parent of a former picky eater, there is a lot of blood, sweat, and tears that goes into helping our kids move past this. It can be done and the first thing to do is find out what exactly is causing the picky eating in the first place.
Will Your Child Outgrow Picky Eating?
If you have a picky eater then I’m sure you have been given a lot of advice from friends and relatives. Some advice that you find yourself rolling your eyes or even possibly trying their advice just to realize it doesn’t work. It’s okay, everyone just wants to help but the problem is they don’t truly understand the depth of picky eating.
Have you ever been told “your baby/child is a lazy eater”, “they will outgrow it”, “feed them whatever they want and they will eat?”
What about “they are on their growth chart so there is no reason to worry about their eating” and “they will eat when they are hungry?”
If you have a baby, a toddler or even an older child with a feeding delay/disorder then I am sure you worry about their eating. I’m also sure that you have this gut feeling that something is off or something is contributing to their feeding trouble but you just haven’t identified that quite yet. I have been there too my friend.
I am sure that a professional has even said the above comments to you. As a feeding therapist and parent of a former extreme picky eater I can tell you the above comments are wrong. Just plain wrong!
There is a period of picky eating that all children go through and that is part of typical feeding development. BUT…..some children’s picky eating goes beyond the typical stage which leads to a limited diet and a lot of stress.
This can happen for all sorts of reasons but there are many things you can do as a parent to help picky eaters move past the typical picky eating stage. I’ll share tips below.
So will your child outgrow this stage? The short answer is No, your child will most likely not just outgrow picky eating without some changes from the parents and/or help from a professional.
With the help of a professional such as a pediatric speech-language pathologist or Occupational Therapist that focuses on feeding delays and sensory processing there is hope and progress can be made. Sometimes you need help from other professionals such as GI doctors, allergist, or dietitians.
How Do You Know When You Need Help With Your Child’s Picky Eating?
- When kids are avoiding classes of food (example won’t eat any meat or any fruits) or when there are certain textures kids avoid (for example, only eating soft foods or only eating crunchy foods).
- When having stress at mealtimes, feeling worried, or bribing your child to eat
- When your child has a difficult time staying in their seat at the dinner table. Seems fidgety or uninterested in food on their plate
- When your child seems like they can go all day without eating and doesn’t complain on being hungry
- When your child becomes easily upset about new foods on his/her plate
- When your child becomes very upset about smells and/or textures of certain foods. Your child may have a difficult time coming to the table because a smell is so strong. They may also avoid touching foods because of the way it feels on their hands.
- When your child seems to prefer to drink calories versus eating foods
- When you are making a separate meal for your child because you fear they won’t eat what you are making.
There is always a reason, also known as a root cause, to a child’s feeding difficulty. As parents we should trust our gut. We should advocate to find out why kid’s don’t eat them and how to help them is part of the process.
When someone tells you that you shouldn’t worry or that your child will outgrow their feeding difficulties continue to trust your gut.
You know your child best. You are their best advocate. We, as parents, have a gut instinct and often are the only ones that will help other professionals dig deep to figure out the root cause.
There can also be many reasons for why kid’s don’t eat but as a feeding therapist I have found these to be the typical components involved in feeding difficulties.
5 Reasons Why Children Turn Into Picky Eaters
Medical Complications Related To Feeding Difficulty:
Reflux, constipation, ear infections, tongue/lip ties
Gut Issues/imbalances: Imbalances in gut bacteria, immediate or delayed reaction to food allergies, Crohns, Celiac, FPIES (Food Protein Induced Enterocolitis Syndrome), Eosinophilic Esophagitis
Neurological impairments & Swallowing impairments (ex: liquid going down too fast or going into airway). This can be from neurological impairments impacting the function of the swallow or from anatomical impairments. If these impairments are present it will be important to connect with a feeding specialist to find the safest way to feed your baby.
Heart and breathing issues play a role in feeding. Babies and Children will always choose to breath over eating. This is important to remember because babies learn very early on how to protect themselves.
Medical components must be controlled first and foremost before progress can be made. Babies and Children will always choose to protect themselves over eating if they know eating is difficult.
If you are worried your child may have difficulty swallowing you can get a swallow study from your local hospital. It’s called a Modified Barium Swallow Study.
It is also helpful to go ahead and request a feeding evaluation from a certified Pediatric Speech-Language Pathologist that focuses on feeding.
Oral Motor Skills That Impact Feeding Development:
◦Oral Motor skills: history of feeding difficulty (ex: difficulty with breast/bottle feeds and/or transitioning to purees and/or solids).Oral motor skills refer to the movements of the muscles in the mouth, jaw, tongue, lips, and cheeks. Strength, coordination, and control of these muscles are the foundation for adequate speech and feeding skills.
*Remember what you get in the body you get in the mouth*. If a child is low tone (muscle quality is low) they will have low muscle quality in their mouth too. This can impact how a baby or child sucks, chews, and swallows.
The jaw is the foundation for adequate feeding and swallowing. We want to make sure your child’s jaw has adequate stability and endurance to safely and efficiently chew foods.
Signs My Child May Have Delayed Oral Motor Skills
Not chewing foods completely and seeing pieces in bowel movements
Avoiding certain textures (prefers soft foods over crunchy or vice versa)
Prefers very bland foods or the opposite where they seem to prefer mainly highly flavorful foods
Chewing foods then spitting them out
Seeming to chew foods for longer than usual
Noted difficulty with moving food around in the mouth
Food sitting in cheeks for awhile
Losing liquid out of the mouth when drinking from a bottle or cup
Difficulty with straw drinking. Biting straws is often a sign of jaw instability
Difficulty transitioning from pureed to solid foods
Child staying on pureed foods for a long period of time
Child preferring to drink versus eat
Open mouth posture at rest
Delays In Development That Impact Feeding Development:
◦Delays in development such as gross and fine motor skills. Gross and Fine motor skills are the foundation for the most precise, fine motor movements of all (speech and feeding/swallowing skills).
As a pediatric speech-language pathologist who focuses on feeding delays/disorders I cannot stress the importance of this. Babies develop differently but the commonality is that there is a pattern in the way they develop.
These patterns support each skill needed to progress forward. An example would be if a baby has not developed adequate head control they are going to have a very difficult time learning to sit, let alone eat.
Same goes for if a baby has difficulty sitting then their body is not fully supported to be able to support skills needed for safe feeding.
They are noted to have difficulty with other skills later on in childhood. Our bodies develop in a way that allows them to be ready for each skill so they can safely and efficiently master.
So, make sure your child is able to sit with support or independently with stable and secure seating from highchair before starting to feed your baby. I recommend starting to feed your baby at 6 months. To learn why CLICK HERE.
Sensory Processing Difficulties And It’s Role in Feeding Development:
◦Sensory Processing: Sensory processing refers to how your brain receives messages from the senses and turns them into responses. Feeding is a sensory-motor experience. You cannot have one without the other. When sensory information is received a motor response is given. Feeding IS a sensory experience.
Some children that are picky eaters can be hypersensitive or hyposensitive to certain foods/textures/smells, and even the way a food looks. A child may have a strong sense of smell that could cause them to not come near a food or even gag when smelling a certain food.
A child may not be able to tolerate certain textures and hold their hands up or flap their hands when touching something that is wet/messy (ex: yogurt). The brain is saying “this does not feel good.”
They may prefer crunchier textures because it feels better in their mouth than softer foods. Some kids may need more flavorful foods. ** Sensory is commonly an underlying link to picky eating.**
Be an investigator. Make a list of all foods that your child prefers. Look at the category, texture, color, taste (bland vs flavorful), and smell (strong or flat).
Start with your child’s preferred foods and think about other foods that have similar characteristics. Start there.
How Routine and Schedules Impact Feeding Picky Eaters:
◦Routine: Grazing and snacking during the day can impact hunger cues and volumes consumed at mealtimes. Picky eaters or children that have difficulty with eating often prefer to graze, snack, or even drink liquids throughout the day. They also have different hunger cues than your typical eater.
They often don’t have hunger cues triggered therefore they can go very long without eating. They may also go too long without eating then feel sick or become very fussy. This is because they aren’t receiving the message that they are actually hungry.
Hunger cues can actually take time to develop for these lil ones. It’s known as interoception. It’s important to remember that feeding has often been very difficult for these little ones. There is often a fight or flight response during feeding which produces extra cortisol in these little ones. This type of stress can actually shut down the GI system.
Besides making mealtime positive and pressure free, giving kids a structured routine and adequate place for eating is essential. For example, eating breakfast in the same spot as much as possible. Sitting in a high chair with foot support at the table too.
Another example is having meals and snacks spread out 2.5-3 hour apart. If they eat breakfast at 7AM then their next meal (snack) would be around 10:30.
This can often give them enough time to feel hunger. It can also help you know there is another meal coming in case they didn’t eat.
What You Can Do To Get Past The Typical Picky Eating Stage
Like I said above, all kids go through a typical period of picky eating. It’s often frustrating for us as parents but kids are developing and learning to make choices, gain independence, and are figuring out likes/dislikes. However, there are several things we can do as parents to help them continue to eat well.
Make one meal for the family
Keep in mind a child’s preferred foods and incorporate those into your meals
Stop short order cooking (making separate meals for kids). This will be easier if you are placing at least one preferred food on their plate so they will have a safe food when they come to the table. For picky eaters and extreme picky eaters there must always be a preferred food on their plate. This will decrease a lot of anxiety for them.
Order off the regular menu when you go out and have kids split the entrée instead of ordering off the kids menu where it is full of chicken nuggets, hot dogs, fries, and burgers. This allows for more variety.
BUT…you can also let your kids order whatever they would like when they go to a restaurant. If you don’t go out to eat often this can be a fun and pleasurable experience for them. Let them enjoy the actual experience of going out to dinner rather than solely focusing on what they are eating.
Order fruits or veggies as a side instead of fries. Of course fries are fine too but to allow more variety and exposure I recommend having at least one fruit and/or veggie.
Serve family style at dinner (place food in the center of the table and have everyone put a little bit of everything on their plates. Kids like to serve themselves. If your child does not want to place any on his plate, that’s okay allow him to serve others for the experience. Your child may feel more comfortable having a very small amount on their plate or on a side plate next to their plate.
Serve a bowl of fruit or raw veggies with dinner or on a plate in the center of the table. Have dips available if your child likes them.
Rotate foods so you aren’t serving the same thing everyday. Try to rotate to a new food every couple of days. I recommend buying a few different fruits/veggies and rotating through those for the week at different meals. The next week add in a new one. This is helpful for your budget too so you don’t feel like you are overspending and wasting.
Offer kids choices “would you like broccoli or rice with dinner?”
Follow the Division of Responsibility:
Parent’s duty: Decide what food to make. Where to eat. When to eat.
Child’s duty: Kids decide IF they will eat. Kids decide HOW MUCH they will eat. This allows mealtimes to be pleasant with no pressuring. Kids start to learn how to listen to their body so they eat when hungry and stop when they are full.
This is super important to follow if you find yourself constantly begging, bribing, or pressuring your child to eat. Even praising and doing the “clean plate club” can be pressure. I was guilty of that too at one point. No judgement.
Some picky eating can extend into problem eating simply because of a child’s temperament. If you have a strong willed, determined, independent little one then they may have a stronger sense of control. Eating is the one thing that children can control.
If they are feeling a sense of loosing control then they may put up a battle to feed themselves or simply start refusing foods. When this goes on for too long, often parents fight back and it turns into a control battle. We will never GET kids to eat, we have to help them learn how to feel safe in their environment and with trying new foods. This is done without pressuring.
Do less talking about food. Make mealtimes about talking about the day and really connecting with your child instead of always talking about food.
Be a good role model. Eat a variety of foods. Eat a variety of colors of food. Eat more plants. Kids are watching and imitate what we do.
HOW TO HELP YOUR PICKY EATER:
If you are looking for help I am happy to help you discover what could be contributing to your child’s feeding difficulty and make appropriate referrals to specialist as deemed necessary. I’ll also help you learn the five foundation skills needed to make mealtimes pleasant again so your child can start trying new yummy foods.
CLICK HERE to check out my program I have to help your little eater.
My good friend, Alisha, over at Your Kids Table has two amazing courses for parents of picky eaters that I have actually taken myself.
I 100% believe in her strategies, as a Mom and feeding therapist. CLICK HERE and HERE to learn more about these courses. I recommend these courses if you have an extreme picky eater, are at a loss for how to help your child, and want a more in depth/ongoing program.
Let’s get your child eating a variety of foods. Let’s get your mealtimes pleasant without bribing, fighting, or frustration. Let’s get your child healthy and happy!!
Share this post with someone you love. Heck, even pass along my info to your pediatrician. So many parents are fighting the picky eating battle and need help. This is a great resource for them.