My toddler won’t eat. It’s stressing me out! What can I do about it?
Today, I’m answering a question from a dear friend of mine.
She, like many parents I know, fears that her son is eating too little to grow optimally. She finds mealtimes stressful and is tired of constantly worrying about whether or not he’ll eat.
Her son tends to be restless around mealtimes and rarely wants to remain at the table while eating. So she often uses toys during meals to motivate him to remain seated.
Unfortunately, this rarely works. So when all else fails, she finds herself following him around the house while he plays, offering bites of food here and there.
She would love to find a way to enjoy mealtimes again, but is not sure how to best achieve this.
Does this situation sound familiar? Many parents I know seem to struggle with variations of it!
In this article, I share practical tips to help reduce stress around mealtimes and help eating moments become pleasurable again.
Is it normal for my child not to eat?
Before we dive into the practical advice, I want to take a moment and cover this question from a more general angle.
It’s natural for parents to feel worried when their toddler won’t eat. But let me reassure you by stating that healthy children don’t typically let themselves starve.
As humans, we’re born with the ability to recognize when we’re hungry and seek food. We can also recognize when we’re no longer hungry and stop eating.
All this to say that while it may look to you like your child isn’t possibly eating enough to grow optimally, in reality, there’s a very strong chance they are.
Forcing, bribing, or cajoling your child to eat more than they truly need can lead to feeding problems down the road. So it’s not the best way to go about it.
The opposite is also true. Trying to restrict how much your child eats for fear they will become overweight can fuel an obsession with food or rather, a fear of lacking food.
In turn, this may override your child’s natural hunger and satiety signals, and ultimately cause them to eat more than they truly need.
What to do if you worry about how much your child eats
If you worry that your child isn’t eating enough calories, I suggest you track their growth. You can do this by using the World Health Organization (WHO) charts.
Start by making sure that your child consistently follows their growth curve.
It doesn’t matter much whether their actual curve falls on the 10th or 90th percentile. A child can be naturally on the bigger or smaller side, and that, in and of itself, is not too worrisome. What matters is that they follow their respective curve consistently.
Keep in mind that it’s natural to see slight variations from one measurement to another. So there’s generally no reason to stress if one single measurement falls slightly above or below your child’s normal growth curve.
That said, big changes can be a sign that something isn’t going well.
For instance, a child starting out at the 50th percentile only to then drop down to the 10th may be a sign of a problem. In which case, it’s worth seeking specialized advice from a registered dietitian on how to best deal with this situation.
That said, many parents that worry that their child doesn’t eat enough have children with growths that remain in line with their growth curves. This means they are growing well, and that chances are there’s nothing to worry about.
This is why starting with this step can help reduce a lot of worries.
What to do if you worry about what your child eats
Now, it’s possible that you’re not so worried about the amount of calories your child eats. Instead, you may worry that they are not eating the variety of foods needed to provide them with all the vitamins and minerals they need.
If this is a case, I suggest you track a few days of what your child eats in an online food journal like Cronometer.
On average, children often ingest more nutrients than we, as parents, may think. This is especially true if you tend to focus on the foods they’re not eating, rather than on the ones they are.
That’s why recording a few days of what they eat in a food journal can help ease your mind.
If you do notice that your child is consistently getting too little of a certain nutrient, you can then increase your offer of the foods rich in it.
As a side note, regardless of how well balanced a child’s diet is, most children benefit from receiving at least some supplements. This hold true regardless of whether a child is following a plant-based diet or not.
In sum – Most children naturally eat only as much as they need to. If you worry about your child’s intake, try tracking their growth. You can also record a few days of what they eat in an online food journal.
Help; my toddler won’t eat!
Let’s take a look at a few aspects of my friend’s specific situation.
Her son is currently 17 months old. He’s always been small, but, for the most part, has been following his 3% growth curve for weight and for height consistently.
Despite this, my friend is concerned that her toddler isn’t eating a large enough quantity and variety of solids.
At his last medical appointment, he had dropped slightly below the 3% curve for height, but maintained his growth curve for weight.
As I mentioned before, slight variations between measurements are normal. So his pediatrician was unsurprisingly not too concerned about this.
Despite this, my friend felt discouraged that despite all her efforts, her son still wasn’t as tall as he should be. Talk about a major case of mom guilt!
What she offers her toddler to eat
Here’s what a typical day may look like in terms of what she offers her little guy to eat.
- Breakfast: oatmeal with chia seed and cinnamon.
- Lunch: a sandwich with hummus, peanut butter or jam and a glass of milk.
- Dinner: a little of what they were eating.
- Daytime snacks: avocado in the morning and yoghurt with fruit in the afternoon.
- Bedtime snack: a bottle of toddler formula thickened with baby cereal before bedtime.
As you can see, she has a good rhythm, offering 3 meals and 3 snacks. But she says that he often only takes a few bites of what she offers him.
What happens at mealtimes
Mealtimes are very stressful for her. As previously mentioned, her son rarely wants to eat at the table. He doesn’t sit still, and can’t wait to get out of his highchair to play.
She reports he rarely seems interested in the food in front of him, regardless of what she offers him.
More often than not, she’ll resort to using toys as a way to keep him at the table. Or, she may give up on the idea of eating at the table, and instead, follow him around the house while he plays, offering bites of food here and there.
On days where she feels that her child doesn’t eat enough, she’ll offer him a bottle of toddler formula thickened with fortified baby cereal after the meal.
She does this because she knows he’ll drink it. She then se feels a little reassured that at least, he got some extra calories and nutrients from it.
Why this is unlikely to help her toddler eat more solids
Using toddler formula in the way my friend does will provide extra calories. However, it is also likely to reduce her son’s appetite, in turn, reducing his interest in trying the solid foods offered at the next eating opportunity.
Moreover, as difficult as it may be, it’s best to keep the feeding environment as constant as possible.
I realize it can be tempting to follow your child around with food while he’s playing, just to get him to have a few extra bites. Again, this can help parents feel like their child is least eating something!
However, children can come to expect this behavior, which can make it more difficult to get them to eat at the table.
Plus, consistently offering foods in this way can cause your child to get used to grazing throughout the day, which can further reduce their appetite at mealtimes.
It also increases the risk of choking, which is one more reason to abstain from doing it as much as possible!
In sum – Only offering foods at the table, and not using thickened toddler formula as a backup may help regulate your child’s appetite. This may increase their interest in the solid foods you’re offering them.
Why does my child eat so little?
Children can naturally eat very little on some days, and much more on others. It’s not always entirely possible to pinpoint the exact reasons for this on a day-to-day basis.
That said, in my friend’s case, it’s worth keeping a few important points in mind.
Her child is likely eating enough calories
First, her son is following his growth curve for the most part.
This is important to point out, because it shows her that her child is eating as much as he needs to grow as he should. So from a calorie perspective, he’s very likely getting enough!
Yes, in his last measurement, he dropped slightly below the 3% for height. This is something that will need to be tracked just to make sure he doesn’t drop further down.
That said, little variations like this are absolutely normal, so it’s nothing to be too concerned about.
It’s certainly not enough to warrant my friend feeling like she’s failing at helping her son grow optimally!
Her child still refuses most solids
Despite growing adequately, it’s likely that her child is getting a large part of his calories from a combination of toddler formula and fortified baby cereal.
This is not ideal because it doesn’t give her child enough practice with different tastes and textures of foods. If this situation persists, it may cause him to develop certain picky eating behaviors as he grows older.
To help on this front, she can try applying the main principles of the concept of division of responsibility in feeding.
This concept was coined by registered dietitian Ellyn Satter, and is described in more depth in her child nutrition book; A Child of Mine. You can also find more info about it on the Ellyn Satter Institute website.
In short, the division of responsibility in feeding suggests that certain aspects of feeding should fall under the parent’s responsibility while others should fall under the child’s responsibility.
- What you offer your child to eat
- When you offer them food
- Where you offer them meals and snacks
- If they eat the foods you offer them
- How much of these foods they eat
When each person sticks to their own responsibilities, mealtimes become much less stressful, for both parent and child. It can also help hone children’ s interest in trying new foods, in turn, helping them expand their palate.
As a parent using this approach, you must remember that although you’re in control of what you offer your child to eat, you cannot control whether they’ll eat it or how much of it they’ll eat.
Instead, simply notice what your child does choose to eat, and adjust your offering of the next meal or snack accordingly.
In sum – Using the concept of division of responsibility in feeding can, over time, help your child to eat a wider quantity or variety of foods.
How can I increase my child’s appetite?
Check out the video below to see how to use the concept of division of responsibility to promote a child’s natural appetite.
In it, I share practical tips to help my friend use this concept to hone her child’s interest in solids, and ultimately help him accept a wider quantity and variety of foods.
The practical advice starts around the 4:45 mark. It’s worth paying close attention to the part about including “safe foods” in each of your child’s meals and snacks.
In sum – Focus on what, when and where rather than if and how much your child eats. Include safe foods with each meal and try trusting that your child will eat if they’re truly hungry.
To sum it all up
It’s natural to feel worried when your child or toddler won’t eat. Despite this, it’s worth remembering that most children will eat, on average, as much as they need to grow according to expectations.
A more valid concern may be that your child’s diet is lacking variety. They may accept eating only a handful of foods and appear unwilling to try new ones.
This can cause your child to lack certain nutrients, or develop strong picky eating behaviors down the road.
The concept of division of responsibility in feeding can be a useful way to prevent this. It can help reduce mealtime stress, all the while helping children work on slowly expanding their palates.