[4 months of age on]
Did you realise that eating is one of the most difficult tasks that a child can learn to do?
(Hence, this is a long post but please take the time to understand where your little one is coming from! It is to encourage you to look at WHY your child is struggling at mealtimes. Probably every parent has had a difficult time at some point, so please no one feel bad about how they have handled things! And please share if you know anyone else that might need some help with mealtimes.)
Eating requires posture, physical chewing and swallowing coordination, breathing timing, managing the sensory aspect of eating and attention. It can also require communication and cognitive skills (understanding what is expected of them) and fine motor skills (using fingers and cutlery).
A child’s sensory system is developing as they learn to eat, especially as these days parents are introducing food as early as four months. A child must learn to cope with not only the texture and taste of the food, but the look of it, the smell of it and even the sound of it when prepared or bitten and chewed.
Now to the physical act of eating. If it sounds complicated just reading it, imagine trying to learn to do it! Eating includes not only munching but using the tongue to move food around and also the cheeks to press inwards to avoid the food getting stuck between the gums and cheeks and having the strength to do so. It also involves coordinating a swallow which doesn’t always happen automatically (think trying to swallow a large pill or something you don’t like to eat).
Eating is NOT easy.
Some children’s sensory systems take longer to adjust to eating than others. Some children’s physical skills around eating take longer to become coordinated.
Something to remember – a child under 3 years of age does not CHOOSE to avoid eating but may instead get stressed and thus appear as though they are being ‘naughty’. Adrenalin has been shown to reduce a child’s appetite, which includes any stress around mealtimes. Yes, it can be awfully difficult to stay cool and calm at the dinner table! That’s completely fine. Just remember, as soon as you show any signs of stress (stern words, threats, louder voice), don’t expect your little one to eat! This is the parent’s responsibility.
If you are having difficulties with your child, think about these factors:
Depending on the age of your child, you may only have up to 5 minutes before their attention span has really disappeared. It is unfair to expect them to keep their brain ‘together’ for too much longer than their limit. This is when you might need to make the food easier to get into them, such as foods with less chewing or ones they prefer more. You might then give them a new food or one that is more difficult to eat for the last part of the meal once you know they are fairly full.
Does your child struggle with particular flavours? Did they struggle to move onto lumpier foods? Do they struggle with wet/mushy/gooey foods? Do they turn their head, splay their fingers, gag or blow raspberries with new smells or textures coming at them? Every child needs an opportunity to touch their food. Do you/did you let your child play with their food enough? Without first being able to touch it, a child’s sensory system finds it much harder to cope with that texture at their face, where the sensory system is more sensitive. It is normal for a child to want to play with their food when they are first being introduced to it. Also, mixed textures such as casseroles and pasta dishes, can be difficult for a sensory system to cope with, rather than just separated foods. Try to remove the stress and let your child just play with or touch the food with no pressure to eat. It might take awhile, but it’s almost guaranteed your child will eventually bring it to their mouth (still don’t put pressure on them!) and learn to like the food…one day! Slow and steady wins the race.
Negative first reaction
Most children will go through this at some stage, some find it harder to move through. The good old ‘yuck!’ and ‘I don’t want this!!’. Even when they ate it the night before. Sometimes just giving your child time to get their head around the menu for lunch or dinner can be all that is needed. Aim to tell your child what they will be eating BEFORE they sit down at the table, even if you have to talk about it all day. When they decide that the food is really okay, strengthen those neural pathways and get them to acknowledge ‘I like…’.
Sitting at the table
Is your child a fidgeter? Does this affect their concentration on eating? Have a look at where they sit. Do they have an appropriate foot rest if their feet don’t reach the ground? Another note – be sure the table is not too high for your children. Their elbows should be at 90 degrees when they rest their forearms on the table. Do they forget their manners? Remember, eating comes first and then manners. You will most likely have to give many reminders of using manners at the table as a child initially does not have much understanding of why these are used and thus not much motivation to do so. Watch your expectations.
Again, remaining calm with problem behaviours is ideal, to avoid the child doing it just for attention. If for example, your child starts throwing food, remind them in clear language (depending what age they are) the appropriate thing to do (‘food in bowl’/’if you don’t want it, put it back in your bowl’) and help their brain to learn the correct action by calmly making them pick the food up and putting it in their bowl. Remember your child’s age. It is not appropriate to expect a two-year-old to understand ‘food in bowl’ expectation straight away but remain persistent in showing them what your family expects and they will learn! Talk about what the rest of the family are doing, that is appropriate – ‘Mummy is sitting on her bottom’, ‘Johnny is using his indoors voice’, ‘Sarah just asked for a washer to wipe her hands’.
Chewing is slow going
This may indicate your child is being worked too hard with the food they are struggling with. Unless it is slow-cooked or fish, meat can be difficult for a child to chew for many years. You can cut it into small pieces but this may just see your child swallowing barely-chewed meat if their jaw is not up to the chewing or their tongue is not able to control keeping it in between their molars. (This also goes for any other small ‘morsels’ such as peas, sultanas, corn. Just watch and see if your child has a good ‘chew’ or not.)
Children are supposed to eat quite often in the day due to high energy demands and small stomachs. As long as you are presenting healthy food, let your child decide how much they will eat. Dinner may not be their biggest meal of the day. And yes, trust they will still sleep, even with less food in their tummy! This can take some pressure off you! And as long as they are not falling off a curve on the weight chart, they are okay.
Now to your communication..
Aim to use only positive language. Use ‘you can..’ phrases to show the child you believe in them. For example, ‘you can try one more piece of meat and then you will be finished’, ‘you can just have a feel of the broccoli tonight’. Asking ‘can you…?’ is asking for a child to say ‘no’. And if they say ‘no’, remember to respect that – you asked the question!! Remind your child what TO DO. For example, ‘we keep our feet on the foot rest’ (instead of ‘stop moving around’), ‘food on the table when finished’ (instead of ‘don’t throw it’), ‘bite then pull’ (instead of ‘don’t put it all in your mouth at once!’). This makes it clear for your child, rather than focussing on what NOT to do.
Any ‘you MUST..’ or ‘eat this or else…’ will increase adrenalin in your child and as mentioned above, make it much trickier (and less pleasant for everyone), to get them to eat. Slow and steady wins the race. Think about appetite or sensory system. Studies have shown if you offer a reward (for example, dessert) for eating a certain food, the child will not grow to enjoy that food as they have been taught (in not so many words), ‘you need a prize for eating this less than exciting food’. Trying a food (or even touching it) is worthy of dessert (if you serve it).
The more a child says ‘I don’t like..’, the more they believe in it and it becomes part of their identity – ‘My name is Eddie and I don’t like broccoli’. Encourage them to rephrase to ‘I’m not sure about..’ and continue presenting whilst taking away stress by reminding they don’t have to eat it.
Finally! There is a lot of information in this post to take in. Please comment if you would like more information on any of the above topics or have a specific question. And please remember, mealtimes can be very stressful for the whole family. Dinnertime is busy, children are tired and it can get crazy! If all else fails, keep calm, abandon the dinner and come up with a plan for the next night.
(If you feel your child has real issues with their physical eating skills or sensory system, your first contact should be a Speech Pathologist at your local community health centre [at least in Australia]. They will be able to tell you where the appropriate service for your child is. This is a free service. GPs are not always sure and child psychologists do not deal with the physical skills or sensory issues in eating.)