Why Won't My Child Eat Anything? (2024)

A toddler who won't eat may simply be expressing a preference for certain foods or a fear of new ones. Sensory problems can also contribute. There are times, however, when a toddler refusing to eat could be a sign of a medical issue like food sensitivity or viral illness.

Selective eating and occasional dips in appetite are common and normal. But refusing to eat for long periods is not. Children usually gethungry every fewhours.

This article explains normal eating in a toddler and the most common reasons a young child won't eat. It also details when to seek an evaluation and offers ideas to encourage positive eating habits.

Why Won't My Child Eat Anything? (1)

What Is Normal Eating for a Toddler?

Toddlers need less food than adults do. An active toddler needs between 1,000 and 1,400 calories a day.

These calories can come from food and milk. If your child can't have dairy, talk to their provider about other sources of calcium.

The amount your child eats may vary widely from day to day. For example, they may seem like they're eating constantly on some days and eat very little on others. This usually balances out over the course of a week or so.

Selective Eating

Toddlers practice "selective eating." This means they tend to favor certain foods and avoid all others.

Their favorites may stay the same for a duration or change over time, but they start life looking for one thing in particular—sweet flavors.

Without any prodding, babies are born preferring sweet flavors, which conveniently attracts them to breast milk. Their preference for sweets is even keener than that of adults and doesn't begin to decline until adolescence. Babies must learn to like savory flavors.

Toddlers learn to eat by copying their parents and siblings. So, if family members are eating an array of foods, your toddler is more likely to mirror that behavior given some time. Just be prepared to stock up on whatever food(s) they gravitate toward, at least for a while.

How Can Parents Better Help Kids With Picky Eating Habits?

Fear of New Foods

Sometime during their second year, many toddlers develop a fear of trying new food. This is called neophobia, and it is the most common reason toddlers refuse to eat.

The fear of new foods is stronger in some toddlers than others, but most of them eventually outgrow it.

It takes patience and persistence for parents to help kids overcome this. You can help your toddler by exposing them to new foods regularly, eating meals together, and showing them that new foods are safe to eat and not at all frightening.

Children may need to be exposed to new foods many times before they actually put them in their mouths. In the meantime, don't try forcing your child to try these foods. Toddlers are more likely to dig in once foods become familiar and they feel they are missing out by not tasting them.

Sensory Likes and Dislikes

Children can have twice as many taste buds as adults. This means their sense of taste is much more sensitive, especially to strong or bitter foods like vegetables.

Some children make food decisions based not only on taste but the information they gather from their other senses. They may reject a food based on one or more of the following:

  • Texture
  • Smell
  • Appearance
  • Movement (think of how gelatin wiggles, for example)
  • Color

The best response is to let the toddler explore or even play with their food. In doing so, they're learning important things about each of these characteristics, making them more familiar.

You can also try doing what you can to make their food look as appealing or fun as possible. Cutting food into cookie cutter shapes or turning a plate of sliced vegetables into a cartoon scene may help.

Keep in mind that if your toddler's preferences seem extreme, it might be a sign of sensory processing issues. Kids with food-related sensory issues might only be able to tolerate foods that are soft, for example, or a certain color.

Sensory issues may lead to problems with nutrition, so it's important to contact your healthcare provider if you suspect your child has a sensory problem.

Babies and Children Who Gag When Eating Solid Food

Toddlers aren't capable of creating a balanced diet for themselves. Offer kid-friendly favorites, but also remind them that they can eat "big people's food" too.

Occasional Lack of Appetite

Children are known for having good interoception skills, meaning they are able to feel and understand the sensations of their own bodies. This includes hunger.

If your toddler won't eat and insists they aren't hungry, let it go. Keep offering meals and snacks, even if they get turned down. As they go through growth spurts and days of varying activity, they'll fill up when they need to.

Some toddlers drink a lot of milk or juice, which can fill them up so much that they aren't hungry at mealtime. Limiting between-meal drinks to water can help with this.

Learning how to manage a toddler's appetite can take some practice. Take your first cue from portion size: If they regularly leave food behind, try cutting back on how much you offer them. Or let them serve themselves.

Toddlers usually get hungry every few hours, so a small snack a few hours before a meal should mean they're hungry, not starving, when it's time to eat.

Fatigue and Distraction

Just like an adult, a child who won't eat may simply be too tired to go through the motions of having a meal. They may also be wrapped up in an activity that keeps their mind (or their priorities) off food.

This can happen when:

  • They have been very active that day
  • They slept poorly or not enough the night before
  • They are happily playing with something or someone and don't want to stop

If dinnertime fatigue becomes a regular occurrence, try making lunchtime your toddler's big meal of the day and prepare a lighter plate for dinner.

Good sleep plays a role in good health, especially among growing toddlers. Toddlers ages 1 to 2 need between 11 and 14 hours of sleep per day (including naps), while 3- to 5-year-olds require 10 to 13 hours per day.

Medical Issues That Impact a Toddler's Eating

As you probably know from your own experience, you can lose your appetite if you feel ill. Toddlers are no different, though they may not always be able to tell you exactly what's bothering them.

Some medical conditions that may cause a lack of appetite or a toddler's refusal to eat include:

  • Teething
  • Constipation
  • A viral infection, allergies, or any other condition that causes a sore throat or fever
  • Food sensitivity,such as celiac disease (a reaction to the protein gluten, found in wheat, barley, and rye)
  • Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), or chronic acid reflux
  • Eosinophilic esophagitis, a build-up of a particular white blood cell in the esophagus (potentially due to food allergies/sensitivities or acid reflux), resulting in a swollen, raw, painful throat

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Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder

Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) is an eating disorder in which a child limits the amount or types of food they eat.

What makes ARFID different from ordinary eating issues is that children with the disorder limit food intake to the point that they do not consume a healthy amount of calories or nutrients. They often experience growth and development issues as a result. Having less energy than their peers is also common.

It is estimated that 0.3% to 15.5% of children and adolescents are thought to have ARFID. Unlike some other eating disorders, children with ARFID don't have a distorted body image. They feel anxiety related to food itself.

The exact cause of ARFID is not known. Many experts believe that a combination of a child's temperament, genes, and triggering events (such as choking) are possible causes.

Other causes of ARFID may include:

  • Stomach or gastrointestinal issues like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), celiac disease or inflammatory bowel disease
  • Eosinophilic esophagitis
  • Allergies
  • Psychological conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), high anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Sensory food aversions, meaning a child consistently and persistently refuses certain foods based on specific characteristics
  • Fear of illness, choking, nausea, or allergies, either because they or someone they saw experienced one of these while or after eating

What to Do When a Child Won't Eat

Keep mealtime positive and try not to turn your child's refusal to eat into a battle of wills. Some strategies you can try include:

  • Consistently offer your toddler a variety of foods, including new ones
  • Offer new foods in small amounts
  • Include at least one type of food you know your toddler enjoys with each meal
  • Offer favorite condiments like ketchup alongside new foods

As hard as it might be, stay calm if your toddler refuses what you offer or causes a fuss at mealtime.

Remember that when they're hungry, they'll eat.

Avoid any strategies that could result in a fight:

  • Don't coax or bribe your child into eating.
  • Do not punish your child for not eating or require that they stay at the table until their plate is clear.
  • Never hide a new food in one you know your child likes. Tucking peas under a mound of applesauce, for example, could mean your toddler ends up rejecting both foods.

Encourage Positive Eating Habits

There are a number of things you can do to help your toddler learn positive eating habits. These include:

  • Set a good example by eating an array of foods from all food groups.
  • Eliminate distractions, such as TV and cellphones, during mealtimes.
  • Involve your toddler in meal planning. Show them pictures from recipe books and ask them to make menu selections for the week ahead. Explore new food choices together at the grocery store.
  • Recruit them as a helper. While it's not safe for a toddler to use things like sharp utensils or the stove, you can have them toss ingredients you've already prepped into a plastic bowl and mix them up.
  • Serve snacks and meals about the same time each day. Give your toddler a five-minute heads up before you sit down to eat so they don't have to make a mad dash to the table.
  • Make mealtime an enjoyable family time. Talk about your child's day and make the dinner table a safe, collaborative place.

How Can Parents Better Help Kids With Picky Eating Habits?

When to See a Healthcare Provider

It can be tricky to know when a toddler is refusing food in a developmentally appropriate way and when poor eating is something to be concerned about.

In general, you should pay attention to what your child eats over the course of a week rather than the course of a day. If your child eats very little during a seven-day period, it may be time to talk to their healthcare provider.

Some other more specific signs that your child needs to be evaluated include:

  • Weight loss or no weight gain over a six-month period
  • Bone fractures
  • A diet that is consistently limited to 20 or fewer different foods
  • Refusal to eat anything at all over the course of two or three days
  • A strong emotional reaction to certain foods
  • Anxiety that seems related to food
  • Refusal to eat whole food groups such as dairy
  • Gagging or vomiting
  • Signs of jaundice such as yellowish skin

Summary

Dealing with a picky eater is different from dealing with a toddler who won't eat. Neophobia is a common reason why toddlers reject foods. They are more than wary of new food; they may even fear it. This form of food refusal usually fades with time.

A child who won't eat may be influenced by sensory issues, a lack of appetite, and different taste preferences. A child who is tired, feeling pressure to eat, or is experiencing medical issues may also shun food.

If your child eats very little during a seven-day period or longer, it may be time to talk to their healthcare provider.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Do children go through phases when they won’t eat anything?

    It's common for kids to have phases where they eat a lot, and phases where they seem to be hardly consuming anything at all. Short periods of low appetite are common and normal. If the problem persists, check with a healthcare provider to see if there is an underlying medical issue.

  • How do you not get angry with a child who won’t eat?

    This is a hard one for parents, because it's easy to get angry when you've prepared a meal or a snack and your child won't eat it (or even throws a tantrum). It may help to remember that, as long as there is no medical condition affecting their eating habits, kids are good at regulating their appetite and they will eat when they need to.

  • What should you do if your child is losing weight from not eating?

    If your child is losing weight, talk to a healthcare provider. They can help determine why your child is losing weight, whether it is cause for concern, and how to respond.

  • Aren't children supposed to gain a lot of weight during the toddler years to stay healthy?

    It depends what you mean by "a lot." Babies generally double their birth weight by the time they're 6 months old and triple it by the time they're 1 year old. But every child is different. It's not uncommon for children to go several months without much weight gain after their first year.

Why Won't My Child Eat Anything? (2024)
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