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How to Deal With a Child Who Doesn't Want to Eat

Updated on December 17, 2018

Parenting comes with several challenges, and despite volumes of experience it still remains a puzzle with numerous bits that need to fit together for one to claim success.

One of such challenges is the child's style of feeding. From the moment parents welcome their newborn into life, they eagerly watch every inch of growth and detail of milestone with anticipation.

As time speeds by, the baby grows past breast milk and the need to introduce solid food sets in. The first few weeks of the weaning period sail by happily as baby seems to enjoy every moment with the breast as well as the recently introduced diet.

Then one day things change dramatically. The happy meal times vanish, food seems to become a source of conflict between parent and child, and mealtime turns into major battle. Each party is desperate to win, they invent techniques to outwit the adversary.

Parent attempts force, trickery and divine intervention, while child resorts to loud outbursts of wailing, kicking, rolling and tossing across the floor as if to inform the neighborhood of the unbelievable amount of mistreatment he is encountering. The situation seems desperate as baby’s appetite drops dramatically to unusual levels.

But why the drop in appetite?

Every parent needs to understand certain important aspects about a child’s growth, as this is largely the major factor influencing your child’s feeding pattern.

Children eat as much as they need for growth and energy. In the first year of life, there is rapid astonishing change as the baby on average grows 10 inches (about 25 cm) in length and normally triples their birth weight. There is need to understand that healthy infants come in a range of sizes although most of them follow a fairly predictable path.

From birth to age six months, a baby may grow about 1.5 to 2.5 centimeters a month and gain about 85 to 140 grams a week. By age one year, the baby should have tripled their birth weight.

Between the ages one to five years however, the child is not growing as fast. The child may only gain four or five pounds each year and may normally go three to four months without any weight gain. Because the overall growth rate has slowed down, they need fewer calories and seem to have a poorer appetite.

This is often referred to as physiological anorexia. How much a child eats is controlled by the appetite center in the brain.

Many parents try to force their children to eat more than they need to because they fear that poor appetite might cause poor health or nutritional deficiencies. If your child is growing and has plenty of energy, he/she is most likely healthy. You can always consult your doctor if you have any concern about your child’s growth.

How to deal with the appetite slump

A common error is to indulge in irrational patterns of feeding. Some parents worry too much to the extent that they awaken the child in the middle of the night to feed. Some try threats of punishment for failure to eat food to completion, others go an extra mile to force the child sit in a chair for long periods or force the spoon of food into the mouth in one way or another. Here are a few tips that can improve meal time and make it a happier moment.


Regardless of age, a parent needs to take time and explain to the child the importance of food and its nutrients and how they will help him grow and gain energy. The child has a brain and will understand this. May be not as fast as you want to imagine. Patience and persistence is the key to success here. Avoid sounding angry and yelling while talking to him about food as this is counterproductive. Make him understand the effect of eating candy and sweets to his teeth as well as fatty fast foods that are more likely to catch his attention faster than broccoli or carrots and beans.

Let the child be in charge of how much he eats

As earlier explained, your child eats only as much as his body requires for him to grow. The appetite center in his brain will most often dictate how much he eats of every meal. If he is hungry he will eat and if he is not, he simply won’t. You don’t need to feel disappointed. This also involves teaching your child how to feed himself as early as he can possibly take it. Many children are able to hold a spoon or pick up finger foods by age 12 months. Once the child is able to do this on his own, minimize the need to pick up the spoon for him. Let him do it himself.

Make meal time pleasant

Let meal time be about spending quality time with family. Allow quality conversation; let it be about sharing experiences of play time or school. Avoid meal time being time for criticism. If other family members are present, avoid arguments. Meal time should be about food and therefore toys and TV are not welcome because they distract the mind from the task at hand. Play time should also be given the desired respect. If meal time is pleasant, the child will be looking forward to the next one.

Serve small portions

A large serving on the plate will not go down well on her psychology. She is more likely to finish a small portion served on a large plate, and will gain a sense of accomplishment. Serve a teaspoon of a variety of nutritious foods, and remember the child has a small stomach that fills easily. If she seems to want some more, allow her to ask for it. Do not get her so used to having you thinking for her needs in terms of quantity.

Avoid bribing her to eat. Rewards for eating will undermine your effort to educate her about the importance of the food. Give healthy snacks like fruits in between meals to compensate for calories not obtained in the small portion of food.

Get the child involved

Let her get involved in making the meals as much as possible. Start by allowing her to decide what she wants to eat. Even if it sounds like it is all she ever wants, she will grow tired of it with time. So don’t try to sweep her idea under the carpet. You can however explain the need for change and a balanced diet. Getting involved will add value to the food in her eyes because she has spent some effort preparing it. It is important to teach your child to say the blessing over each meal, as gratitude to God for providing the food. This further adds value to the food and helps her understand that food should not be taken for granted.

Remember as a parent to always provide quality well-cooked, tasty nutritious food. Food which doesn’t taste so good will only make the story worse. If you want tasty food, so does your child. Remember to eat healthy and set an example for her. As the child grows older the body’s need to feed will increase, and appetite will improve.

Should fathers participate in feeding their children?

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© 2013 Ian Batanda


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