Did you know that eating is not the body’s first priority? There’s always a reason your toddler is not eating and it’s up to us to play detective.
It’s actually the 3rd! There are two other needs that the body has to satisfy before it can’t focus on eating.
WHY DID MY TODDLER STOP EATING?
The Body’s First Priority
The body’s first priority is to deal with its physiological needs. These are things like breathing or dealing with an illness. Try holding your breath while eating … it’s not going to happen, you’ll fight for wair before really feeling a need to chew.
Similarly when our body is unwell, our body’s focus will be to remedy that situation. Think of teething babies who are miserable and don’t’ really want to eat anything but what makes their gums feel good.
Another example is when you’re feeling nauseated, chances are you want easy and simple foods like crackers and bread because sometimes, let’s face it that’s all we can keep down. Basically what you need to get out of this is that your appetite takes a back seat when your body is not well.
In this category, we can also add any medical conditions. Anything from chronic diseases to food intolerances to occasional illnesses (like the cold or constipation).
As you are playing detective thinking “why is my toddler refusing to eat”, first look at what’s going on with your toddler’s body.
- Is she coming down with a cold?
- Does your toddler have an asthma attack?
- Is your child experiencing a cracker sore, is even constipated or has allergies that are flaring up?
- Any known physical “thing” like the esophageal muscle not closing right (this makes babies spit up and have reflux), oral motor difficulties (like trouble latching), g-tubes, etc.
- Any existing medical conditions will also take a toll on baby’s appetite.
The Body’s Second Priority
The body’s second priority is basically to protect the brain. “So how does this apply to my toddler refusing to eat?” you might ask.
We go deeper into this in my online course From Picky To Eating, but the gists of it are that the body needs to know its stable and won’t fall over and hit its head on the floor. This comes with having supported seating.
You might not believe me, but literally, before any other recommendations are made, before even the full assessment of the kid is complete, feeding therapists will make sure they send families home with instructions on how to position their child so that they are seated in a supporting way. It makes so much if a difference that we know it will work despite whatever else is going on.
So try making your child hit these seating must do’s at home:
- Make sure your child is seated in a chair that has a back support that actually reaches their back.
- Ensure that their knees are bent at 90 degrees right at the edge of the chair. (If you need to stuff towels behind them to bring them closer and still support their backs, do it!)
Make sure your child has a footrest. Many high chairs have ones that grow with your toddler. If yours doesn’t get creative and use what you have around the house. Cardboard boxes, yoga blocks taped and stacked together. My favourite chair is this one. I got mine from Kijiji for $75, so don’t forget there’s that options too.
Your Child is Going Through a Cognitive Leap
I wrote about Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive leaps in this post, so it’s worth a read to better understand how our kids think and how it impacts feeding.
In essence, when children go through cognitive growth, their sensory systems are a bit overloaded and are tired and cranky.
Kinda like we experience 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”.
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. This is when they go into their “magical” thinking mode.
The next one is between 5 and 7 years old where kids start to realize fairy tales are not true and move into a more “rule” based way of thinking.
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 and have some deep questions to ponder. You know, the whole “who am I?”, “why am I here?”, “what is love?”.
While they are going through their leap, they will want to eat the same foods 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.
Let me put it this way, there’s a reason why kids have a hard time eating meats and raw vegetables. It’s because they do take more “chews” per bite. And that can be tiring. Do you remember how annoyed you were when you had to chew through a piece of steak that was so dry it might as well have been leather? Your cheeks actually do start to burn!
No matter what behaviour your toddler and older child displays, your goal is to ask them “how can we make it better?. Teach them that there are things they can do to make it easier for them to manipulate foods.
Is Your Toddler’s Behavior Standing in the Way of Eating?
I affectionately say that toddlers are wired to want two things more than anything. They want control and they want attention.
They need to have a way to control their surroundings. They are told what to do and when for most of their lives. I don’t know about you, but I always felt most miserable when I worked in my 9 to 5 and it wasn’t the type of company that encouraged feedback from their employees … if you know what I mean.
This means, that we must find a way to give them some control at mealtime. Don’t worry, I got you covered a few paragraphs down.
- The best way to have a structure where you still keep your sanity yet still give control back to your toddler is to use Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility.
You are responsible for WHAT to serve, WHEN to serve it, with WHO your child eats, and WHERE you serve the meal. Your child is responsible for HOW much they eat and IF they will eat at all.
Next, let’s talk about attention.
The first thing that you need to accept is that your child will want negative attention to no attention at all. They know if they scream, cry, leave the table, etc … they will get your entire attention as you try to reprimand them at mealtimes.
The key is to give them their dose of positive attention before dinner. When you think about it, from the moment we pick up our toddlers from daycare or school, it can feel like a pretty big rush. First, we have to make it there on time. Next, we might have a few minutes to quickly change into something comfy before jumping right in dinner tasks.
From our toddler’s perspectives, they get home and you’re immediately tossed into chores mode. The tug a war between them craving that time with you through misbehaving and you try your best to get everything done on time. No wonder it’s one of the toughest times of the day!
- Put some time-in and spend 5 to 10 minutes before a meal focused and being interested in whatever game or activity your child is doing. Give them your undivided attention and support.
- Create a fun pre-mealtime routine that’s a few minutes long. Maybe you have a dance party, crawl like bears or hop around doing jumping jacks. Whatever is enjoyable for both and makes everyone smile.
HOW DO I KNOW IF MY TODDLER’S EATING PROBLEMS ARE SERIOUS?
I truly feel that what we’ve come to call “picky eating” or “fussy eating” is simply normal behaviors. We just need the right ways to communicate with our kids during these times and that’s what my course From Picky To Eating is all about.
They are trying to communicate to us their preferences and don’t often have the right words to describe what they are experiencing.
On the other hand, there are a few red flags that
There are many signs to look out for and wrote about picky eating red flags in this post, but here are the most important ones:
- Your child has a medical condition
- Your toddler is losing weight
- Your child has less than 30 foods on their safe food list
- Your child is dropping foods and not picking up old favourites
- Your child excludes foods form entire food groups
- Your child has a very strong reaction when brought to the table (crying, kicking, screaming, anxious, yelling, want to run/hide
MY TODDLER WON’T EAT BECAUSE HE’S SICK. SHOULD I WORRY?
If your toddler has a cold or flu, it’s normal for their appetite to change. Our body spends 10% of our energy digesting. When we need to get over a cold, it’s going to need to tap into some of that stockpile to help heal. If you are interested in how to use natural remedies to support your child with a cold or flu, read this.
In these cases, I would not expect anyone to happily eat a steak and potato dinner. It’s too heavy of a meal. When choosing what to offer your child, think liquids like bone broths, soups and warm drinks. Sourdough bread with raw honey also goes a long way.
Remember what we learned earlier about the body’s first priority. If your child is going through a “temporary” health condition like teething, or they broke their arm, you’ll have to adjust the meals you offer to support them.
If they are going through a longer-term health condition like asthma, allergies, an autoimmune disease, or have sensory challenges, you’ll want to always remember that eating will come after their health challenge. That means you’ll have to ensure they are comfortable in their body with what’s happening to them.
That might mean, eliminating certain foods from the diet, being better rested before attempting a meal, slowly offering foods that are not well tolerated form a sensory perspective.
You will know best what makes your child comfortable in their skin, so that they can focus on eating.
MY TODDLER IS CONSTIPATED—IS THAT WHY SHE WON’T EAT?
Oh yes! This is such a common occurrence that I created a whole resource for it you can find here.
I’ll start by saying that for a body that is functioning optimally, we go to the bathroom 1 for every main meal we had the day before. Most of us have 3 main meals, breakfast, lunch and dinner, and that leaves us with going 3 times a day. Anything lower than that is considered constipation in the holistic world.
I’m fully aware that most doctors don’t get concerned until there’s no bowel movement after 4 days, so 3 times a day might seem like a lot if this is the first time you’re hearing about this.
If your little one has trouble eliminating, they might be experiencing cramps, aches and pains in their abdomen area. Same things apply here … until they are comfortable in their body they might not eat well.
Stick to the “p” fruits (pears, peaches, prunes) and liquids to help add moisture and soften the stool. Adding fiber can also help gently “rake” the intestinal walls. But be careful because some harsh herbs can irritate the already inflamed gut lining even more. Dates are also one of my go to foods to help kids eliminate. I like these ones.