“My child will only eat French fries, plain hamburgers, Wendy's chicken nuggets, Goldfish crackers, the cheese and crust from pizza, and chocolate milk.” Does this sound familiar?
Now, think of a food item that you dislike or refuse to eat. Imagine being told that you MUST eat all of it - every last bite - or else you can't leave the dinner table. How would you feel? How much stress does this though cause you? Picture yourself in the situation. Would you feel scared? Nauseas? Would you suddenly lose your appetite?
If your child is a picky eater or problem feeder (not sure? take my free quiz to find out), this is how they feel every time they are told to eat a food that they don't consider "safe." Safe foods are those that you can identify as foods that they will almost always eat with little resistance, such as the list above provided in the example. While a food like plain penne pasta may seem harmless to the parent or caregiver, if it's not a "safe" food for the child, being told that they must eat penne pasta can be a fearful and traumatic experience.
And an important goal of child feeding, in addition to providing adequate nutrients to support growth and development, is to nurture a positive relationship and joyful experiences with food. To achieve this, parents should minimize or avoid negative or traumatic experiences related to foods and eating occasions. So why do some children have hypersensitive responses to otherwise common foods, and how can you help a child who refuses to eat many foods? Let's take a closer look.
Food Neophobia (Fear of Food)
The reluctance or avoidance to eat new foods is often described as food neophobia. Food neophobia is an innate defensive mechanism that protects against the consumption of poisonous or harmful foods, with one twin study evidencing hereditable variations. Food neophobia is important among infants and toddlers who develop new tastes and curiosities coinciding with increased independence and less parental supervision. Overcoming food neophobias through repeated exposures is consistent with the “learned safety” explanation of positive changes. The basic idea is that you can get used to new foods by eating them more often. This is the same way that people get used to things and learn that they are safe. This is called learned safety. When people eat foods that they have never eaten before, but don't have any negative effects afterwards like a stomachache or gagging, they will feel safer around the food and likely accept it the next time.
Children with sensory processing disorder are usually more prone to food neophobia. Sensory processing disorder can affect children in every area of their lives, including feeding. A child with sensory processing disorder typically finds the texture, smell, or even feel of food in their hands or mouth unpleasant. Thus, eating is a negative experience from them and this produces many strong feelings like anxiety, fear, and stress - all which contribute to tantrums and emotional outbursts around mealtimes.
So what can you do? There are different strategies and approaches. It can take time, trial, and error to find something that works for your child. However, repeatedly exposing your child to foods in a safe and non-pressuring way, and consulting with a feeding expert, are two important steps/
Repeatedly Expose Your Child to Foods
Early experimental research by Birch and colleagues demonstrated that the number of food exposures strongly influenced children’s willingness to try a new food. In fact, they found that the rejection of new foods can be transformed into acceptance with repeated exposures. But a new or unfamiliar food may require 20 or more exposures to achieve acceptance. A common mistake among parents is that they give up on a food if their child rejects it the first time. This is a mistake that can worsen their food refusal. Parents are encouraged to keep exposing the child to the food until the child becomes willing to try it.
The type of exposure is related do the type of acceptance the child obtains. Exposures that include only visual experience (looking at the food but not tasting the food) increases visual preferences for the food, whereas exposures that include taste experience (eating small amounts of food over multiple occasions) improve taste preferences for the food. Additional types of exposures include touch/texture, hearing, and smell. All types of exposures are important for enhancing children’s food acceptance, particularly when a food is initially rejected. This is especially true for children with sensory processing disorder.
Consult with a Feeding Expert
Early food preferences and behaviors ultimately determine long-term diet quality. High levels of food neophobia in infants and toddlers have been associated with decreased intake of fruits, vegetables, proteins, and snacking in preschoolers and elementary-aged children. In addition, parents' fruit and vegetable intake, and use of controlling and/or restrictive feeding practices, were also strong predictors of children’s fruit and vegetable consumption.
For families with a child who has feeding problems, whether mild or severe, feeding and mealtimes are often challenging and emotionally draining. Parents want their children to eat nutrient-dense foods in enough volume to meet their nutritional needs. When mealtimes become a battleground, it can feel defeating.
However, there is hope. If you have determined that your child is a problem feeder, seek help! If you aren't sure, take my free quiz: Is Your Child a Picky Eater or a Problem Feeder. A feeding specialist, such as someone trained in the SOS Approach to Feeding, will help you identify skill deficits that are interfering with typical eating development. The combination of professional and home-based interventions will support your child's growth, development, and relationship with food.
Want to discuss your concerns and explore your child's eating behaviors? I work with Occupational Therapists, Speech Language Pathologists, and other feeding specialists to meet feeding therapy and nutritional goals. I can also complete a comprehensive nutrition assessment to determine if your child's nutrient intake is adequate and if feeding therapy is a good next step for your child and family. I provide referrals and recommendations to appropriate healthcare professionals as needed.
Hi! I’m Beth.
I’m a registered dietitian nutritionist with over 10+ years of experience in pediatric and family nutrition, and a mom of three. My mission is to help clients find food freedom using the principles of Intuitive Eating so that they can heal their relationship with food and body. Eating and feeding should be joyful, positive experiences that make us feel good. I work with you in a safe and supportive environment to develop a personalized and realistic plan that works to achieve your unique goals. I am here for you every step of the way. Learn more: Welcome to FTSN! (fromthestartnutrition.com)
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