When to seek help for fussy eaters

When to seek help for fussy eaters

Image: https://unsplash.com/@simonrae

Children learn how to eat a variety of food from a very young age, but this process isn’t always smooth sailing.

Refusing to try unfamiliar things or only eating a handful of foods is quite common up to the age of five, with around 50 percent of toddlers likely to be fussy with what they eat. This is partly to do with our biological instinct: vegetables can have a slightly bitter taste which, in the natural world, is a sign of potential toxicity (yet another reason why kids won’t eat their brussels sprouts!). There’s also a psychological element to fussy eating. As children grow older, they start to test their boundaries and say ‘no’ to their parents. Refusing to try certain foods offered to them is part of growing up, and a normal stage of child development.

Many instances of fussy eating aren’t a cause for concern. Paediatricians often recommend waiting to see if a child grows out of it, so long as they are able to maintain a healthy weight in relation to their height.

For some children, though, fussy eating is a more serious problem that could have a long-term impact on their relationship with food. If this is the case, it may be a good idea to seek support from a health professional.

How do I know if my child needs help for fussy eating?

Eating may seem simple, but it’s actually a complex process that requires more than 30 different nerves and muscles – not to mention all of our senses – to work together.

Children who experience delayed oral-motor skills, a sensitive gag reflex, sensory processing disorder, behavioural challenges or psychological issues may find it difficult to eat a wide variety of foods without professional help and treatment. Instead of getting better over time, they can develop food aversions and become even more restrictive in their diet, causing stress for the whole family.

So, how do you know when to see a health professional about your child’s fussy eating? After ruling out conditions that may cause temporary fussiness like teething or illness, here are some signs to look out for.

Your child is:

  • eating less than 20 different foods, and that number may be decreasing
  • cutting out whole food groups from their diet
  • afraid to even have new food on their plate
  • always eating something different from the rest of the family
  • finding eating so difficult that it causes social issues for them and your family
  • finding eating so difficult that it causes high levels of stress for them and your family

It’s worth seeing a health professional for help (and we cover which health professionals are best to see in this blog post) if your child is experiencing any of the signs listed above.

If you are worried about your child’s eating habits but not sure whether treatment from a health professional is needed, it’s still a good idea to see someone for advice – even if it’s just to rule out any problems so you don’t feel stressed at mealtimes.

Extreme picky eating

Some children experiencing more severe challenges with eating may be suffering from an eating disorder known as Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID). This is not at all about body image, and more about the relationship with food itself.

Formerly called Selective Eating Disorder, ARFID is more than just the fussy or picky eating which can be outgrown. High levels of anxiety around food will be present and they may not be consuming enough calories to grow and develop properly.

Research into ARFID is still fairly new, so it’s not unusual to find that GPs and child health nurses are not familiar with the condition. Preliminary research estimates it affects around 5 percent of children.

Children with ARFID require professional treatment to recover. If you are worried that your child’s fussy eating is on the extreme end, make an appointment with a health professional who specialises in feeding, such as a paediatrician, for further diagnosis. At Learn Play Eat, we’ve put together a list of practitioners who may be able to help, and a blog post about which types of health professionals may provide help with picky eating.. 

The Learn Play Eat app helps families overcome picky eating, and is supported by qualified health professionals and feeding therapists.

We’ll talk more about ARFID and its causes and symptoms in a future post.