Friday 22 September 2017

Dear David Coleman: Please help! I'm in despair over my two-year-old daughter's poor eating habits

Yoghurt - rich in magnesium
Yoghurt - rich in magnesium
David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. I am in despair over my two-year-old daughter's poor eating habits. She has become really picky, only eating yoghurts, cheese and bananas. We live in Spain and I thought it was the summer heat that was affecting her appetite.

Her paediatrician says her height and weight are fine and she is healthy and active. I give her a supplement because I am afraid she is missing nutrients. I have tried everything, including forcing her to eat, leaving her to it, ignoring her and encouraging her.

Please help, I need this sorted before it gets too hot to eat again.Toddlers and their eating habits can be really frustrating and very anxiety provoking for parents.

David replies: The good news, in your daughter's case, is that you have had her medically checked out and she is healthy. She is growing within all the normal limits and you haven't seen any drop off in her energy or activity levels. All of this can reassure you that she is developing normally.

Even her reduced appetite sounds normal. In their first year, babies grow and develop at a phenomenal rate and need lots of food to fuel this. During their second year, their growth rate really slows and so too does their appetite. Grazing becomes the new normal.

I could imagine the scene at some mealtimes in the past, as you sat trying to cajole or force her to eat. Some days it may have been using the spoon as a flying airplane coming in to land, some days it was probably lots of distraction while guiding a spoon into her mouth.

Other days, you may have exhorted her to eat, bargained with her to eat, demanded that she eat. It is exhausting for you and potentially distressing for her.

You don't describe it in your query, but I can also imagine the responses of your daughter to your various efforts to get food into her. They probably range from gagging, to spitting food out, to clamping her lips closed, to crying and even leaving the table.

The difficulty with all of the methods you have used so far is that they are designed to meet your need to see your daughter eating so that you can be reassured she won't fade away and die.

They are not necessarily meeting her need for nutrition in the way she needs it.

They also all have the potential to set up a really negative cycle of interaction between you and your daughter where food becomes associated with distress, coercion and a power-battle between you.

These kinds of dynamics could have a long-lasting negative impact on her relationship with food. It may create a situation where eating food (or not eating it) is about winning the battle between you and her. It may even reinforce her resistance to trying new foods.

So, given that you know that your daughter is healthy, even with the restricted range of foods that she currently eats, I'd suggest that you pull back entirely from trying to get her to eat.

In truth, you can't make her eat anything. She has to choose to eat it herself. So, rather than forcing, cajoling or tricking her into eating something, just focus on making good healthy food available to her and leave her to choose what, and how much, she eats.

Toddlers, like all children, have an instinctive urge to eat. They won't starve themselves. Indeed, researchers have shown that over longer periods of time, like months, children given a wide choice of food types do usually have a balanced diet, even though day to day, they may only seem to eat just carbohydrate, or just protein and so on.

As parents, we need to have faith in our children that they can make choices about their food. They may not be hungry, just because we determine it is lunchtime. They may not enjoy a particular flavour or texture of food at a given point in their development. But, if we can resist panicking about them not getting enough, or the "right" nutrition, and continue to let them make their own food choices, we typically find that their fussiness is a phase.

Making a big fuss about their fussiness can accidentally extend, or even cement, their pickiness.

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