I’m willing to bet that you’ve been in this position before.
The one where your child is misbehaving at mealtimes and you’re not sure what to do. One mom says to do this. Another doctor’s blog says to do that. And because nothing worked before, you’re worried about choosing the wrong tactic.
In this post, I want to share with you one of the most powerful concepts you can learn when gaging if a tactic is appropriate for your child.
A 1 year old eats differently than a 2 year old.
A 2 year old eats differently than a 5 year old.
A 5 year old eats differently than a 6, 7 or even 8 year old.
My point is that each age, will present their own unique feeding challenges. Our journey to feed our kids is always ongoing.
In this post, we are going to talk about how the cognitive development of kids affects their eating.
I wholeheartedly believe that it’s important to know how our kids “think”. It will help us in determining how to talk to them and how we interact with them at mealtimes. It’s a concept that firmly rooted in my feeding course From Picky To Eating and we go to lengths to understand what’s driving a child’s behaviour at mealtime.
What are Cognitive Leaps?
According to Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive leaps, there are 4 cognitive stages that children go through:
- Sensory Motor (0-2 years old)
- Pre-Operational (2/3 years to 5/7 years old)
- Concrete Operations (5/7 years old to 9/11 years old)
- Formal Operations (9/11 years old and beyond)
In essence, when children go through cognitive growth, their sensory systems are overloaded. It shows up as our kids being tired, cranky, and quick to snap. Often times, you might even see them wanting to have a quiet environment, enjoy dimmer lighting and want more alone time.
It’s the same feeling we adults have when we are putting fires out all day at work, running dangerously late to pick up our kids before the daycare closes (and avoiding the $5 per minute fee if you’re late!), having to make dinner quickly as possible because the kids are already “hangry”, and forgetting you have 15 minutes to get your oldest to his swimming lessons!
At the end of those types of days, you’re spent, you just want to have some quiet time and pray nothing else goes wrong.
And since food is the only activity kids will do that required them to intake information with all their 8 sense, interpret it in their brains, and come up with a response, you bet eating is exhausting to them. They just need things to be “easy”.
Here’s a summary of each stage and what feeding challenges you might encounter by age.
Sensory Motor (0-2 years old)
The first leap is between 2 and 3 years old as toddlers move out of “thinking with their sensory systems” and are learning “thought” by starting to speak. Since they don’t have words up until this point, the only way they know how to interact with their world is through their 8 senses.
This is also a time when babies and toddlers have become increasingly aware that they are separate from their caregiver. They finish the process of “separation and individuation” by 2/3 years old, where they understand they are their own person with opinions.
Have you noticed how around 16 months old they are no longer quite as co-operative when changing their diapers? That’s because the only way toddlers of this age know to confirm that they are separate from you, is to do the opposite from you. Think about it this way: if you say “yes” and I say “yes”, how will I know you are “you” and I am “me”?
At this age the underlying reasons toddlers refuse to eat is either because they can’t manage the sensory properties of foods or because they are trying to exercise their own independence.
It’s important to note that before 2 / 3 years old, feeding difficulties are PHYSICAL problems. Either because they are lacking in the oral motor skills to eat the food we are asking them to, or because they can’t manage the sensory properties of that food.
Pre-Operational (2/3 years to 5/7 years old)
At 2 / 3 years old is when a toddler move into pre-operational thinking. It’s also called “magical thinking because it’s that time for pirates, fairies, and monsters under the bed.
At a basic level, they can now “worry” about something that will happen in the future.
In this stage, kids make their food preference based on it’s visual appearance and believe only adults eat non-tasty foods.
Because they are in magical thinking, they also believe that food can contaminate other foods. That non-tasty foods too close to their favourite food will make their favourite foods taste bad.
If the physical aspect of feeding difficulties are still present, an emotional component is added in the mix. Now feeding difficulties will have a PHYSICAL + EMOTIONAL component we have to address.
Concrete Operations (5/7 years old to 9/11 years old)
The next cognitive leap is between 5 and 7 years old where kids start to realize fairy tales are not true and move into a “rule” based way of thinking. They become very black and white thinkers.
From a feeding perspective they base their food preferences on taste.
One characteristic of kids of this age is that they believe that they have to eat a food the way it’s prepared and served. It will be important in these years to show that foods can be manipulated to suit their preferences (add salt, use condiments, etc)
In this age range, children know they don’t want certain foods and are trying to figure out “why they don’t like that food”. They are also able to give semi-logical excuses to get out of eating those foods.
After age 7, they begin to try to make sense of why they eat differently than others. It’s a dangerous time where they begin asking questions like “what is wrong with me?”
Feeding difficulties are now present in the form of a PHYSICAL + EMOTIONAL + COGNITIVE layer.
Formal Operations (9/11 years old and beyond)
And the last one is between 9 and 11 years old where they move into thinking as adults do. They are now able to deconstruct problems and work backward to figure them out. This is also the age where they start to ponder deep questions. Like “Who am I?”, “Why am I here?”, “What is love?”.
By this age range kids have identified as someone who doesn’t eat a certain food. More heartbreaking for me, is that they believe that there is something intrinsically wrong with them that prevents them from eating that food.
If we are not careful on how we talk about food in the early days, this is where we see the results of using forcing or bribing kids to eat. The seeds for kids to become emotional eaters and self-conscious grows in this phase of their lives.
What do these Cognitive Leaps mean?
While they are going through each their leap, sensory regression occurs. That will manifest as kids who want to eat the same foods over and over and over again. These foods will be the ones that are “easy” for them to process from a sensory point of view and from an oral motor skill set.
The downside is that they will eat so much of that food they will grow tired of it and drop it from their safe food list.
It’s always been hard for me to describe the long terms effects of using tactics like punishment, bribing, negotiating, or worst forcing kids to eat without going into some sort of explanation of how we develop from a cognitive perspective.
While during the “child” years, feeding difficulties seem to be simply normal for their age, the consequences for when they finally reach 11 years old and think like adults do can be devastating. It turns kids into emotional messes around food. Paves the way for emotional eating, binge eating, yo-yo dieting and nutritional deficiencies.
Each stage will present its own unique beauty and challenges. Now you are armed with the knowledge about what to expect and what to focus on as your child grows.
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As your child grows you also need to reach for feeding strategies that are applicable to the situation you and your child are currently experiencing.
I would love to support you in creating a way to do mealtimes that keeps gray hairs at bay and creates an environment that gives your kids the best chances to take bites of new foods.
Keep an Eye Out for a Food Jag
A food jag is a period of time when kids will want to eat the same foods (basically their preferred foods) over and over again. Eventually, they will be so sick of eating that food that they will drop it completelly.
If you ever said something to the effect of “You used to love pasta with white sauce and eat it all the time, yet now you won’t touch it!”, it’s probably as a result of a food jag.
Here are some telltale signs of a food jag:
- Eating the same few foods
- Getting angry/upset when new/different foods are on the table (even a different type of macaroni)
- Dropping their usual foods
- Eating less of a variety of foods and fewer amounts of foods
While it’s important to remember that picky eating is completely developmentally normal around these ages, you still want to keep up with it. I simply tell my clients that these phases are something to be aware of so they can be prepared for them.
We can help our children through these cognitive leaps so that they don’t drop foods and get caught in a permanent picky eating phase. One way to do this is to make mealtimes easy and fun.
Stick to separate dishes; don’t make “all in one” meals. Have meals as a family. And finally: play, play, play!
My clients know that I say this often: don’t be afraid to play with food and get messy! Make eating fun.
How to Support Your Child through Cognitive Leaps and Food Jags
As a bonus of signing up for my feeding course From Picky To Eating, you also get access to the private Nourished Little Munchkins Food School Facebook community for the lifetime of the course. this means that you have access to me and pick my brain on how to strategize and create a plan for your child’s food jag!
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