My child is a fussy eater, did I do something wrong?
When you have a child who is fussy, one of the most common questions you might ask yourself is; “what could I have done differently?” There are a thousand different “right” ways to feed your child, so when things don’t go to plan you are often left wondering if you made the right call. Should I have offered more vegetables when they were starting solids? Should I have done baby led weaning? Did we cater too much to their preferences? Was I just not strict enough?
Fussy eating is a normal developmental stage in younger children, however if feeding challenges persist or become a major source of anxiety and stress for your child and you, there may be something else going on. Your child is not ‘just being difficult’, and you, their parents, are not to blame. There are a number of complex factors that can cause your child to struggle with food that are beyond your control.
Sensory issues are a major contributor to fussy eating. We all have preferences for the level of sensory input (sight, sound, taste, touch and smell) we receive. Some people lean into certain sensations and seek out more (enjoying loud music, loving tight hugs or rollercoasters) while other people want less and can try to avoid the sensory input (preferring quite rooms, avoiding hugs).
Fussy eaters tend to be sensory avoidant when it comes to the smell, taste, texture or look of food. If a food is outside of their sensory comfort zone, it can trigger the danger center in the brain. This results in an increased heart rate, reduced appetite and strong feelings of discomfort or stress which can make mealtimes and the introduction of new foods an extremely overwhelming experience
Deficits in oral motor or feeding skills can also be a factor. If your child lack the skills to feed themselves efficiently or chew and swallow with ease, certain foods can cause a lot of frustration. This turns the mealtime into a negative experience and your child may learn to avoid certain food types completely.
If your child has anxiety or is naturally cautious they may also find mealtimes challenging. They can have a strong preferences for sameness and can find the repetition of similar foods comforting. To push outside of their comfort bubble and introduce new foods, or even to make small changes to the foods they already enjoy, can feel overwhelming and stressful.
Allergies, medical conditions (such as reflux, tonsillitis and ear infections) or a history of choking can teach your child that being cautious around food is necessary for safety. Past experiences of pain and discomfort during or after eating can cause them to become hesitant around new foods and loyal to those foods they deem as safe.
Your child may not have strong regulatory mechanisms when it comes to appetite, they may not feel very hungry and will happily go for long periods without eating. Your child may also have very low motivation when it comes to food. As is the case with adults, they feel don’t feel much joy or excitement around eating – they are not “foodies”! These two factors can make it challenging to expand the diet.
It’s complex. These factors can interact and it can be hard to tease apart.
So what can you do?
Your child’s eating can be impacted by more than one of these factors, and can arise at different times in during their development. While parenting style and mealtimes strategies are a part of the fussy eating story and can steer our intervention, the root causes of fussy eating are an unpredictable and complicated mix of genetics, medical history and experiences of early life.
A feeding therapist can help you work out WHY your child finds food so difficult and will help develop a plan together to enable you to feel more confident feeding them at home while also helping them feel safer around food.