“When did your child’s eating become a problem?” It’s one of the first things I ask parents, and it’s interesting how most of them identify the 18 month mark as the point where it started to get difficult. So many parents describe their babies as fantastic eaters until about 18 months of age. They go from seemingly eating everything offered, to almost eating nothing. Why is that?
I think it’s helpful to understand toddler development at this age, to help work out why kids begin to develop fears of food or become less predictable in their eating. When you put these factors together, you’ll start to understand why the eating switch can flick to ‘off’.
Firstly, at 18 months of age, the rate of growth slows right down and the amount of weight they gain is a smaller percentage of their total body weight. Children this age often have less of an appetite than they used to. This means that they lose some of their previous desire to eat and are usually less motivated by food. They’d often prefer to play or explore rather than eat.
Secondly, toddlers at 18 months of age learn most about their world through touch and sight (and other senses), and they start to understand some colours and shapes. This is when they start to distinguish between types, colours and shapes of food (and often when we see vegetable intake start to drop off!)
At about this age they also start to cut their first molars. The eruption of these teeth can sometimes cause significant pain during eating and kids revert back to drinking rather than biting and chewing. This is also when many toddlers start to refuse more chewy foods like meat.
Toddlers at 18 months of age have also developed a sense of self, and know that they are separate to their parents. They can now imagine a threat and often become fearful of strangers or new things (like food). It seems that at this age, 18 month olds start to understand that food can be unpredictable and scary. They also have better memory skills than in previous months, and start to associate some foods with enjoyment and some foods with less pleasurable experiences. At this point parents often notice the difference between willing acceptance of ‘safe’ foods, and adamant rejection of ‘unfamiliar’ foods.
So when you put it all together, we have young children who require less energy for growth and are more suspicious of the food offered to them. In many cases, they start to refuse previously liked foods, and develop a penchant for certain favourite foods. It can be very difficult for parents to understand this behaviour and respond accordingly. So, what should parents do? Take a deep breath and ride it out. Stick with your Division of Responsibility in feeding (check out my previous blog post here) and continue to model good eating habits to your kids. This too shall pass!
If you have questions about weight gain in childhood, fussy eating or childhood nutrition then email firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll do my best to address them in a blog post. In-home appointments are also available in Perth, Western Australia.