In life, eating is a very complex task that can be affected by the smallest experiences. Our experiences with different foods and how our bodies react to those foods can shape our acceptance and willingness to eat. After as little as one negative reaction to a food, our whole view on eating, the way we perceive hunger and our willingness to explore food, for survival can be affected. In some extreme cases, these experiences can be so severe that they can lead to a complete refusal to eat despite sensations of hunger.
Feeding and eating a range of taste and textures is often a process that occurs without much thought. The first step is exposure through the introduction of a new food, and in most situations a child will accept the food and eat it. We know that children don’t have definite likes or dislikes and repeated exposure, which occurs by repeatedly offering a food, leads to acceptance. However, a single exposure that is paired with a negative reaction or experience, can lead to an ongoing fear and refusal of a food. This refusal and fear can continue despite multiple attempts to expose the infant or child.
When food allergy can lead to fussy eating
When we look at the child with allergies, when they eat a food that they are allergic to, they may experience stomach pain and discomfort, nausea and vomiting and in some cases difficulty breathing. These responses can occur after a single exposure or over a period of time. For these children, they quickly start pairing feeding or eating with pain and discomfort. This can result in fussy eating as they attempt to protect themselves from the pain by avoiding any new foods and sticking to the same ‘safe’ foods.
Children who have responded negatively to a food can become very aware of how a food feels in their mouth. They may have difficulty tolerating certain textures, tastes and temperatures in their mouth. A large portion of these children may not tolerate lumpier purees due to the feeling in their mouth. It’s so important to offer finger foods as well as the smooth purees to ensure that they are developing their chewing skills.
Understandably, a parent’s biggest fear is their child getting sick or going into anaphylaxis after eating something. As a result, parents stick to giving their children foods that they think are safe. As a result, these children are only exposed to a limited range of foods, which can result in fussiness. It’s important to find out what a child’s allergies are and then for the parents to ensure that they are exposing their child to as much variety as they can.
A parent feeling stressed or anxious around their child’s eating can play a big part in a child’s refusal to eat. If a child senses that their parent is stressed, they feel stressed which results in them losing their appetite for even their favourite food. It is so important for parents to try and be as relaxed as possible during mealtimes.
Things to do to try and avoid fussy eating:
- A parent’s role in the mealtime is to decide what foods are being offered, where and when. It is for the child to decide what and how much of the offered food they will eat.
- At every meal, give your child foods that they eat and expose them to a range of different foods.
- Away from mealtimes, encourage your child to interact with the new or feared food. This can be cutting, chopping, breaking, mashing, stacking and preparing new foods.
- You can then progress to smelling, licking and biting. With the final phases being biting, chewing and spitting and then biting, chewing and swallowing.
These steps can take a period of time to progress through, however they are so important in helping to decrease stress around new foods. With a decrease in stress, comes an increase in hunger and willingness to eat.
When it’s time to seek help
It’s important to remember that fussy eaters are not always underweight. If mealtimes are a battle and your child is rejecting whole food groups or the variety in their diet is decreasing, it is important to seek help from a healthcare professional to avoid oral skill delays and further fussy eating.