“Doctor my child doesn’t eat” is the oft repeated bane of mothers in the clinic. Mentally sizing their little one with the neighbor’s child only to find him/her on the lighter sides gives a sense of alarm to parents. Very often, grandparents pass loose remarks on the weight of the child and how it reflects poor parenting. At times, parents often coax and cajole the child into eating more. More often than not, this is likely to cause and in fact actually reduce the child’s intake. This is then followed by either the mother chasing the child around the house with a plate in hand; or scolding or hitting (in frustration followed by immense guilt) the child till he/she eats. When appetite continues to be poor, parents in their desperation, hit the market in their search for vitamins and tonics to increase appetite. Parental insecurities are often focused on some unknown illness that is ‘sapping the child’s health”. This often sends parents ‘doctor shopping’ to look for a doctor who will diagnose and treat this occult disease.

While disease can account for loss of appetite for some children, a large number of otherwise healthy children are the victims of either their parent’s ignorance regarding feeding of children or mean unhealthy parent-child interaction. It is pertinent to mention some important scientific facts so that the issue is seen in the correct perspective. Firstly, scientific studies suggest that often preterm babies can regulate their caloric intake to match growth and metabolic needs. This means that the role of parents is largely limited to making food available and allowing the little one to eat on his/her own. Secondly, force feeding the child is unlikely to increase the child’s intake. In many cases, it can create a food aversion and actually reduce the child’s intake. When successful, force feeding can create wrong eating habits and result in childhood obesity. And thirdly, most doctors state that there is no role for routinely prescribing artificial foods or tonics to ‘boost the health of the child’.

In feeding the child as in other aspects of parenting, it is wrong for the parent to both force his way all the time; or to submit passively to each unjustified demand of the child. Correct feeding practices are a balance of warmth and demandingness. Here are some tips for parents towards promoting correct eating habits in their children:

  1. WHAT TO MAKE– the child should be given a choice of what he or she wants to eat within the range of acceptable home cooked food. This not only improves the chances of food acceptance but also gives the child a sense of empowerment by participating in the decisions of the house. Deep fried and high calorie junk food or an access of sweets should not be the mainstay of diet. However, keeping the child entirely away from these foods may actually create an unwanted craving for these foods. Again, common sense should dictate the trade-off.

  2. WHEN TO EAT– Parents often try to finish-off the kids meals so that they can relish theirs at leisure. However, children may eat slowly or inadequately; and this causes the parents, who are hungry themselves to lose their patience. Children are likely to eat much better when they are served their food with the rest of the family. Mealtime should mean family time.

  3. HOW TO SERVE – Children like their independence to be respected hence setting the child’s plate like the grownups is advisable. Dividing the food into small parts allows children to pick and eat with their own hands. This is an important step in guiding children to regulate their own intake of food. Some examples of finger foods are ladoos of rice-dal or parthas broken into small bits.

  4. HOW MUCH TO SERVE– Piling the plate with large amount of food is likely to overwhelm the child. On the other hand, serving a more manageable amount of food is likely to encourage the child to ask for more helpings. Again, it is the sense of empowerment that increases the child’s willingness to eat.

  5. HOW LONG – Mealtime should not exceed 20-30 minutes. At the end of this, even if the child has not finished, the food should be cleared. This may seem cruel at first but usually reduces the child’s fussiness in the long term. Food may again be served after 2 hours.

  6. WHO SHOULD FEED – The child should be allowed and encouraged to feed himself/herself. The initial attempts are usually clumsy and hence pasting the food on the face and spilling food should not be a reason to snatch the child’s attempts at eating independently. It is better to have a child make a mess as a toddler than a schoolchild!

  7. AVOID TEMPTATIONS – using music or TV as distractions to make a child eat is a wrong habit. So is using food as a reward or a punishment. Further, telling the child that he/she is a bad child if he/she doesn’t eat is wrong. Similarly, eating well should not make him/her a good child. Eating should be treated with no more importance as any other routine activity of the day such as bathing without attracting any unwanted attention.

  8. IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT – Parents should not take it personally if children do not eat food that has been cooked with much effort. The child may reject sambar and rice made at home only to savor the same dish at the neighbors. It should rather be seen as a healthy need for change.

  9. THE BIG PICTURE – One has to pay attention to other aspects of a child’s life equally. Speaking to and interacting with your child, giving him/her encouragement, initiating activity, exercise and encouraging interaction with peers all enrich the parent-child relationship. The behavior pattern of a child is a reflection of the parenting style.

However, it is not easy to be the perfect parent as there is nothing called perfect parenting. Sometimes, it’s just best to stop chasing and start enjoying the time with your child ! Happy Parenting !!!

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