Help! My Toddler Won’t Eat

Is there anything as defeating as spending time prepping, cooking and serving your family a meal to have your toddler refuse to eat? Maybe you have tried pleading or bargaining with your toddler and are just exhausted from the day-to-day of trying to please them when it comes to food.

 Toddlers are notorious for their selectiveness or pickiness. I’m not sure it helps to know, but it is totally normal. Even as a pediatric dietitian, my two boys have left me feeling discouraged at times. What we sometimes think of as our toddlers being picky, can be food neophobia, or fear of new foods which often shows up between 15 to 18 months

Instead of trying to get our toddler to eat, maybe we should step back and ask why they may not be eating. Because outside of this fear of new foods, there can be many reasons why a toddler may refuse to eat, including being full, being tired, not liking the food, or having an underlying medical condition. Sometimes, toddlers may also refuse to eat as a way to assert their independence or as a form of control. And it’s important to note that toddlers growth slows down significantly when compared to an infant’s growth. So we may be expecting them to eat more than they actually need.

I thought it would be good to dive into some of these reasons your toddler may be refusing to eat and some possible ways to fix it.

Reasons Why a Toddler May Not Eat

Portions are too big

Sometimes toddlers are overwhelmed when there is too much food presented. I mentioned above that their growth slows down, so while you may have previously seen them eat tons once they got the hang of eating, that appetite also may have slowed. 

What to do:

Cut your child’s portions down. They can always have seconds. Still serve a balanced meal but just give less of each food offered.

They had too many snacks

Some toddlers may graze throughout the day. This may be a hard habit to break especially if you had an infant who breastfed frequently throughout the day! It becomes important once you have a toddler to establish structure around feeding times.

Toddlers need a chance to build up an appetite for meals. It helps them to learn self-regulation, hunger and fullness cues, and builds a healthy relationship with food.

What to do:

Have designated snack times between meals that you choose one or two foods to offer. Your child can choose how much to eat, but shouldn’t be allowed to continually go to the pantry or refrigerator and continue to graze. 

They drank too much milk throughout the day

Milk is a great source of nutrition and can be quite filling. It has fat, protein carbohydrates plus lots of vitamins and minerals. So in a sense it’s like a mini meal and can fill your child up so that they don’t want to eat much else.

What to do:

Toddlers should have about 2 cups of milk a day. If they are drinking much more than that, it certainly can be affecting their appetite. You can try offering smaller amounts at each serving or try cutting out a serving during the day.

They are sick

When kids are sick they may have a limited appetite. And sometimes they lose their appetite before they have other noticeable symptoms of an illness. This for sure happens with my kids. One night they will hardly eat anything and then the next day their lunch comes back hardly touched and then boom they get a fever or a runny nose.

What to do:

If your toddler seems a little off from their norm or has clear signs of an illness, don’t force them. When their appetite comes back they will be very interested in eating.

They are tired

It can take focus and energy for a toddler to sit and eat, and when they are tired it can feel like too much.

What to do:

Make sure your child is getting enough sleep at night as well as at nap times. Plan meals and snacks at times where they are most awake.

They are just not hungry

In addition to slowed growth, toddlers’ appetites can be unpredictable. They will have days where they want to eat and eat and eat and others where it seems they barely eat anything.

What to do:

Try to listen to your child when they say they aren’t hungry and honor that. A feeding method known as the division of responsibility works well here. It’s your job as a parent to choose the foods to be served, decide when they are served and where they are served. It’s your child’s job to decide what and how much they eat. 

They are too distracted

If your child is watching a screen or their are other kids around, those things take all of their attention, and they are not able to give any attention to food being served and whether they are hungry or not. Some may over eat, but some may not eat enough.

What to do:

Try to avoid screens being on at the table or other distractions like toys if your child can’t seem to focus on eating.

They feel too much pressure to eat

Toddlers can be very affected by pressure and it can make them anxious. Which in turn may make it hard for them to eat. Pressure can be seen as asking them to eat more, watching them while they eat, trying to feed them and even praising them when they eat.

What to do:

Think more about meal times as family bonding and don’t focus on what or how much they are eating. Keep in mind the division of responsibility, being your job is to provide a nutritious balanced meal and your child’s job is to eat.

Other medical reasons your child may not eat

Sometimes there’s an underlying medical condition that may affect whether your child eats. If you suspect any of the following, it’s important to talk with your child’s doctor. They can then refer you to a speech language pathologist, occupational therapist, or pediatric dietitian.

Sensory issues

Some kids have sensory issues so are more sensitive to textures, tastes and smells of food, making them very uncomfortable. 

Digestive issues

Toddlers are prone to constipation, and when they are constipated this can affect their appetite or make it uncomfortable when eating. Other digestive issues like reflux can make eating uncomfortable or painful.

Food intolerances

Food allergies, food intolerance and something called eosinophilic esophagitis which are all related to consuming specific foods that cause a reaction are other conditions that can make eating not so enjoyable. 

Stressful experiences

And sometimes maybe it’s a bad experience that has caused them to be scared about eating. If they were ill and vomited after eating, aspirated a food, choked on a food or even being forced to eat. 

The most important thing here is to listen to your child and try to pick up on their cues when it comes to eating. Understand that much of the time meal refusal and power struggles are normal. If you continue to struggle and are unsure what is going on, ask your child’s doctor for some advice.

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