Feeding FAQ: 9-12 months – General Food Refusal

How can I help my son of almost a year to eat better? Meals are a constant struggle

I am becoming very worried about my son and his refusal to eat at meal times. I offer cooked vegetables as finger food, and some of his meals are fine, but many are not. Things such as beans on toast are great, but with meat he is inclined to chew it for ages then spit it out. I try offering him a spoon with food on it, but he gets frustrated and it goes from bad to worse. He has now started to wake around 4am hungry. I am back at full-time work, so my son attends nursery three days a week. They report that he eats well there. My mother cares for him two days a week, but like me she struggles with his eating. At nursery he only sleeps for 30-45 minutes all day. At my mother’s he sleeps better, but still not as much as at home during the weekend. I try to keep weekends as calm as possible so he is able to catch up, but this means we are not getting out with him as much as we would like.
Some days are better than others, but I don’t want him to become a fussy eater. I have read books about what to do and I do persevere, but the constant crying at the table is wearing me down. Sometimes I take his food away and pop him on the floor, but this also seems to upset him. At the moment I feel as though I cannot do anything right. Today he had soup with my mother at 1pm, but would take nothing tonight. She too is getting tense about meals and has taken to singing and clapping just to get him to take some more food. I thought maybe he was teething, but this has been going on for a month and is getting progressively worse. He is never offered snacks and I have also stopped puddings, but still I cannot tempt him. I cook homemade food and the nursery prepares food on the premises.
At 7am my son takes 5 tbsp apple puree with 1-1.5 weetabix, ready brek, or cheerios. He is offered a beaker of milk, which sometimes he will take. He is given juice at 8.30am. He has a proper meal at 11.30am and tea is tagliatelle, beans on toast or a soup snack on arrival home. Again, this is sometimes taken, sometimes not. He takes an 8oz bottle at 6.30pm before bed. At home he naps from 9.30-10.15am and 1-3pm. He goes down by 7pm, and often earlier as he is shattered.
The whole issue has got me down and I feel my baby hates me. Can you help please?

It can be very difficult to cope with a child who repeatedly refuses your meals, yet wakes in the night through hunger, and as a mother it may feel that your own child is rejecting you. Trying to cope with the situation on a daily basis is draining and depressing, and it is often difficult to look at the problem without becoming emotional. At your son’s age, however, he is beginning to leave babyhood and become more independent. He would like to do many things for himself, but the problem is he may not yet be physically able. Holding a spoon and getting it into the mouth before all the food drops off is a complex and difficult task. If it is at the end of a day without a great deal of sleep, it is easy to see why your son may become so frustrated. He needs to eat but cannot manage to do so on his own, but he does not want you to help him – a vicious circle. Stepping back from the situation is not easy for either yourself or your mother, but as the nursery are not so emotionally involved, he seems to eat better there. Babies and small children can be incredibly sensitive to adults’ feelings and tension, especially in those closest to them.

As your son wants to be independent and feed himself, you need to prepare food that he can easily handle. Use the time you have at the weekend to prepare some finger foods, which can be given to him on his return home at night. Giving vegetables is fine, but as you need him to take more protein, look for recipes that can be made up into finger food. Chicken and fish goujons, small meatballs, fish cakes and mini pizzas are all ideal. These can all be homemade, frozen in advance and quickly reheated. There are also dishes that can be prepared quickly once home, such as vegetable frittata, omelets, eggy bread or pancake. These can be filled with grated cheese and cut into small pieces that can be handled. He may also like dipping vegetable sticks, sticks of cheese or a chicken goujon into a dip, such as homemade hummus or vegetable sauce.

The more your son can feed himself, the more likely he is to eat. Continue to make main meat meals, such as shepherd’s pie or risotto, with finely diced or minced meat. Many small children find meat hard to chew, so finding ways to serve it where it is easy for them to eat should help. Another tip is to make a casserole dish of thick consistency and spread it on small pieces of bread roll, which again he can hold himself. Tempting a reluctant eater will involve you in thinking about what you offer him, as it is all too easy to fall back on things you know he will accept. But there are ways in which you can encourage him to try a wider variety of dishes.

A word of caution – learning to feed himself will be messy and time consuming. Have plenty of newspaper under his high chair and cover him with the biggest coverall bib you can find. He will want to use his fingers to dip into food and, although it can mean a lot of clearing up afterwards, let him try to eat as much as he can by himself. Give him a spoon of his own to hold and dig into his food. It can be very frustrating to watch the efforts of a baby trying to feed themselves, but your son will feel more in control of the situation if he feels independent. You may also be able to pop in a spoonful now and again while he is busy with his own. Although you may be concerned about his intake, keep your voice and face happy and encouraging. Praise him when you see him trying to get food to his mouth and give him a clap when he does pick up a stick of cheese and try to eat it. In the same way that he picks up tension about meals being refused, he will also want to try to please you and get your happy reactions when he eats.

There is no easy answer to his tiredness due to lack of sleep in the daytime. Putting him to bed earlier will certainly help, although it is hard when you would also like to spend more time with him at the end of the day. As he gets bigger he will be better able to cope with being at nursery all day – but it is a good idea to let him recharge and catch up at weekends. You may miss taking him out and about, but at this age he will enjoy time spent with you doing ordinary things, such as a trip to the swings or looking at a book together, as much as bigger outings. He will enjoy the simple, quiet routine of home life, as he is stimulated a lot in the week with nursery.

Thinking ahead at weekends and planning what you are going to give him for his weekday teas can help you make the most of the time you spend with him. Stocking your freezer with suitable finger foods and meals should help you to feel that you are doing something positive. Most mothers feel rejected by their babies if their carefully prepared food is refused. This is a normal reaction, but try to stay cool and focused on the positive things you can do. There are a few books on the market worth looking at for ways of tempting a small child who seems to have gone on food strike. Get a few ideas and keep trying with different things.