Most of the parents I work with have usually tried varying levels of 'discipline' to manage their child's fussy eating. This is often inspired by well-meant advice from other parents or family members. However, this advice often comes from people who haven't had to deal with problem feeding at its worst, day in and day out. In fact, most parents who have a fussy child find that being stricter causes considerably more stress at mealtimes and results in poorer intake overall.
So why doesn't being strict at mealtimes work?
Children who have issues with persistent fussy eating, that is more than just a phase in their development, can experience significant levels of stress and anxiety at mealtimes. Being more 'tough' at times when kids are feeling overwhelmed only teaches them to become more worried in preparation for the next meal. Pressuring kids to eat family meals causes stress. When children are stressed, their body naturally releases a hormone called adrenaline in an attempt to protect them from a perceived threat. Adrenaline prepares the body for a 'fight or flight' response by directing significant blood flow to the limbs, but away from the digestive tract. This effectively shuts off a child's hunger. Given the importance of encouraging children to listen to their internal cues about hunger and fullness, this approach clearly won't work to improve intake in the long term.
So what should we do instead?
This is where Ellyn Satter's Division of Responsibility is so important. Basically, this is an idea about how responsibilities at mealtimes should be divided between parents and children. Parents are responsible for the where (the environment), the what (the food offered with consideration of the child's ability and preferences) and the when (the structure and spacing of mealtimes). Children are responsible for the whether (if they choose to eat or not) and the how much (as little or as much as they choose to eat). This model dictates that children should never, ever be pushed, pressured, forced or even encouraged to eat. If you're interested, I'm happy to do another blog entry about the Satter Division of Responsibility in future posts.
If the dinner table is a battle ground in your house, or your child won't eat, please feel free to make an appointment with Kyla. If you'd like to ask a question about the difficulty you are having with feeding your child then please click here.