Picky eaters? Start by understanding the feeding relationship

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    Veronica Castillo of Phoenix and her grandson, Lorenzo Castillo (4), visited the eating assessment playroom at an open house for the Children’s Developmental Center. Photo by Daniel Friedman.
    Veronica Castillo of Phoenix and her grandson, Lorenzo Castillo (4), visited the eating assessment playroom at an open house for the Children’s Developmental Center. Photo by Daniel Friedman.

    Parents and children bring their own unique characteristics, strengths and challenges to the feeding process. Together, through repeated interactions, they develop the patterns that influence the child’s relationship with food.

    Infants need their parents to regulate their feeding; parents learn to read their baby’s cues and provide feedings on demand. As they grow, babies begin to develop self-regulation based on those patterns of interaction and their parents’ responses.

    If you find mealtimes challenging because of your child’s eating issues, here are some things you should consider:

    As the parent, you are responsible for the “what, when and where” of meals. Your children are responsible for determining whether to eat and how much to eat. Difficulties usually begin when parents attempt to make a child eat certain amounts or particular foods. These ideas are based on research by Ellyn Satter, a pioneer in the concepts of feeding relationships and eating competence.

    Your child’s feeding needs change as they grow and develop. By age 1, toddlers and parents should transition from on-demand feedings to regular meals (three meals plus small snacks) so children develop hunger and fullness cues. Experts discourage “grazing,” which works against the process of recognizing those cues.

    When you bribe children to eat or enforce a “clean your plate” rule, you undermine their ability to recognize their own hunger and fullness cues.

    Research suggests that children innately prefer a variety of foods that are eaten at home. Children learn to eat what their parents and family members are eating through exposure to those foods. Children typically need 10 to 20 exposures to try a new food. You can increase that exposure simply by sitting at the table and eating with your children.

    Children work to develop individuation in a variety of ways, including a refusal to eat certain foods. Parents who understand their role in the feeding relationship and are sensitive to their child’s needs are able to accommodate their toddlers better by allowing them to feed themselves and explore their autonomy.

    Premature infants and children with developmental delays may be at somewhat higher risk for eating problems but that does not mean you should change your role in the feeding relationship.

    Children tend to fall into a pattern of growth within the first year of life and typically stay around the same consistent growth curve throughout childhood. If your child’s eating issues make mealtime difficult, or you are worried about your child’s weight or height, consult your pediatrician.

    Common developmental challenges (“picky eater”) may require simple behavioral adjustments. Others may need ongoing support from a medical professional. A feeding team consisting of several specialists is often suggested to address more complex eating challenges that may include oral-motor problems, severe allergies or relationship issues.

    Picky eaters? A reading list

    • “Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense,” by Ellyn Satter
    • “How To Get Your Kid to Eat… But Not Too Much,” by Ellyn Satter
    • “Just Take A Bite,” by Lori Ernsperger and Tania Stegen-Hanson

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