Feeding FAQ: 12-18 months – Food Fads/Fussiness

My 13 mth old has started to refuse food. I am not sure which strategy to use so he eats more.

My son is 13 months old and has recently discovered how to point blank refuse food. He is happy with spoon feeding and is not particularly interested in feeding himself as he won’t eat any finger food I give him. He offered food at set times, breakfast at 7am, lunch at midday and tea at 5pm. I offer a mid morning and mid afternoon snack but he’s not usually interested and it ends up on the floor. So he should be hungry by the next mealtime but he refuses to eat. He will occasionally drink milk but if I left him without food, he would be quite happy! Clearly this is very frustrating as all the meals I cook end up in the bin and I am sure he is not getting enough calories. I know that it’s not the taste of the food as if he doesn’t like something, he will gag but these are all foods I know he is ok with. He has an issue sitting in his highchair and sometimes ends up on my lap but even though will only eat a tiny bit. We have resorted once or twice to feeding him in the lounge in front of the TV but even that is tentative and he is extremely fussy about eating. Up until the age of 1 he was wonderful and had really good meals – now it has all changed and I don’t know what strategy to use. Distraction doesn’t seem to work any longer. He is quite happy to eat if I give him a ready-made jar of pudding but he can’t eat fruit jars for all meals.

He takes 10 ozs of milk in the day and naps for a total of 2.25 hrs. He sleeps well at night.

Your son’s behavior is very typical of many toddlers at this age. It seems to happen almost overnight that they change from eating well into refusing most of the food offered to them. This is a perfectly normal, if somewhat frustrating, phase of toddler hood.

After the first year a toddler’s growth rate slows down and their appetite also decreases. They can become quite picky and fussy as to what and when they will eat. At 13 months a toddler is very interested in the world. He is constantly on the move, either crawling or walking, and wants to find out about everything. His attention span is short so it is not surprising that issues begin to arise over sitting in high chairs and having to eat meals.

The way you deal with this phase can either hasten its passing or possibly cause real food fights to develop.

Your toddler will be well aware of any pressure being put upon him to eat. His likely reaction will be to refuse; the more he is pressured the greater his capacity for refusal. Also, the more he is coaxed, bribed or force fed the more likely a long term problem may develop.

Keeping a food diary, noting exactly what he eats and drinks over the period of a week, will give you an overall picture of his intake. At this age he may eat little one day but the next day his food intake will be much better.

Providing you offer him healthy well balanced meals you will probably find that his average intake over a period of days is sufficient to meet his nutritional requirements. If you feel that his intake over the period of a week is well below the recommended amounts for his age then by all means seek medical advice.

Already you are keeping to sensible meal times. Until your son shows more interest in eating at these times don’t offer him snacks in between. A toddler only needs a snack if he shows signs of hunger well before his meal time. At this age even the smallest snack can take the edge off his already small appetite and the next meal will be refused, so setting up a vicious circle.

No small child will starve themselves. As adults, we often have unrealistic expectations of how much a small child is capable of eating. Watching their endless energy we feel that they must need to eat more to keep them going. Offering them very small meals which look appealing means the food is far more likely to be accepted than putting a larger amount in front of them. They will be overwhelmed and refuse to even try.

Use a dish which is divided into sections. By separating out all the ingredients to his meal, rather than offering them all mashed together, he is more likely to want to try those which attract him. Offering a small but wide selection is better than just one or two larger amounts. For instance, by using a divided dish you could offer him a small spoonful of shepherds pie, a few pieces of chopped carrot, a sprig of broccoli and a teaspoon of peas. This may be received with more enthusiasm than one bowl with two or three spoonfuls of shepherds’ pie mashed together with peas.

Although your son is not showing much interest in finger feeding yet, you may find he is far more likely to have a go at feeding himself if you separate out his food and make it look attractive. Whilst he is busy trying to finger feed himself peas you may be able to feed him several spoonfuls of shepherds pie, without his really realizing. Using finger food to distract him is a far better idea than using the TV as a distraction or chasing after him with a loaded spoon.

The habits you install into him now regarding sitting down in a certain place for meals will help you as he becomes more mobile and wants to run about. If he really does not want to sit in his high chair any more then use a booster seat at your main table. Eat at least one meal a day with him. Your son may be far more willing to eat if he sees you sitting down and eating at the same time. If possible, try to eat the same food as him so he begins to understand that meals are social occasions as well.

Try to remain very matter of fact about his food refusal. It can be very frustrating when you have spent time preparing a nutritious meal only for it to end up in the bin, again. Your frustration and trying to persuade him to eat will be stressful to you both. By all means continue to prepare him healthy meals which you know he has enjoyed before. Serve a very small portion in an attractive way on his plate and have a positive attitude when telling him that it is meal time. “Look, it’s lovely broccoli trees and fish today”. Before his meal, spread newspaper or a washable mat beneath his chair and cover him with an all-in-one bib. Offer him a spoon and invite him to help you. Place his bowl in front of him so he is able to see what is being offered. His first reaction may be to put his hands into the food. That is the normal reaction for a child of this age who wants to explore everything he can see. Don’t comment on this or try to prevent him. Load a spoon and offer it to him. If he refuses, either by turning away or clamping his mouth shut, accept he is not yet ready to begin. Leave the dish in front of him and see if he is willing to try picking up some of the small pieces of vegetables you have prepared for him. Although meals are social occasions, by focusing on him and what he is doing all the time you could be creating another reason for his refusal to eat. Watch what he does but don’t always talk to him in a constant stream of conversation. If he does put a sprig of broccoli to his lips then casually comment,

“Oh, I see you have found a broccoli tree; well done”. If he continues to try the vegetables then have another try with your spoon. If he refuses to take the food from the spoon again ask him if he would like to do it himself. You may need to help him guide his spoon into his mouth but the more you let him try on his own the quicker he will pick up the skill. Some toddlers like to have their spoon loaded for them and then they pick it up and feed themselves. Other toddlers of this age may like a baby fork to try stabbing at the vegetable pieces. If you load a fork for him, again he may feed himself.

In the beginning it will be messy. By the end of the meal he may well have food in his hair, ears, and nose and there will also be quite a bit on the floor. Be prepared with clean damp flannels to wipe him over once he has finished. It can be quite difficult not to keep wiping a toddler up as they are feeding but leaving it until the end, if possible, will be far less disruptive to him.

You are quite right to not want every meal to end up being a jar of ready made pudding. A toddler of this age is quite capable of refusing everything put in front of him if he knows that in the end you will offer him the jar of pudding that he finds really easy to eat.

Although it is hard to let your toddler finish a meal whilst seeming to have eaten very little, this is the only way you will stop the habit of him holding out for the jar which appears if he has refused everything else. This may mean a day or two of him having very little food. Remain calm but determined to see this phase through. Continue to offer him meals in the way described above. After about 20-30 minutes finish the meal if your son is showing no more interest, even if he has eaten hardly anything. Just take the food away, clean him up and let him get down. Don’t offer him a snack unless he is showing signs of being really hungry long before his next mealtime. Offer him the next meal in exactly the same way. Place the meal where he is able to see it. Section it out into very small portions and let him try what he wants of it in his own way. Taking away the pressure to eat “one more mouthful” is the best policy. It is not an easy one to carry out, but it is the only way to stop this problem becoming a real issue.

Take a look at Gina’s Contented Baby to Confident Child, page 95 onwards, where this issue is discussed at length. Food fads do pass if dealt with in the right way. Keep looking at your son and his boundless energy by day. His intake may appear small to you but, providing he sleeps well and is active all day, his food intake is sufficient for his needs at this time.