A fussy eating strategy that can backfire: “I’m hoping he’ll grow out of it”
You’ve probably heard that fussy eating can be a perfectly typical toddler behaviour - and this is right. It can start to show up between the ages of one and two and can carry on for a few months, or even years, before it becomes what is thought of as ‘persistent’.
What causes typical toddler behaviour?
Typical toddler behaviour is possibly the most common cause of fussy eating. To understand it, it is helpful to see this behaviour in the wider context of a child’s development. From around 15 months and lasting until approximately 24 months, a toddler’s behaviour is characterised by back and forth, and often self-defeating and seemingly illogical behaviour. There is an inner struggle going on between the toddler’s need for autonomy and their need for support. ‘No’ becomes a favourite word, and they can really seem like they don’t know what to do with themselves, what they want, or how to act in a way that will meet their own needs and desires.
This kind of behaviour can play out in all aspects of a child’s life, not just eating. It can be a demanding, exhausting and frustrating time to be a parent. One study actually measured the back and forth responses that parents typically gave and found that mothers of toddlers, on average, took nine steps an hour to prevent their toddler from doing something, and exactly the same number of actions an hour praising or demonstrating something constructive. That is about one minute out of every three spent either encouraging or reigning in our toddlers!
In this context, it is hardly surprising if we don’t behave in a ‘textbook’ way when our toddler seems to be messing us around at mealtimes. It can be infuriating, and it is likely to be just one of many flash points in the day. And that is before we start thinking about our own relationship with food and ideas about feeding, which may or may not be straightforward or helpful when it comes to managing our toddlers’ eating.
What happens if we don't handle this phase well?
The trouble is, if we don’t get off on the right foot with our feeding relationship during this stage, it can be the start of a much longer than necessary fussy eating period, and even turn into persistent fussy eating, and more rarely, into extreme fussy eating.
It is difficult to say how common ‘typical’ or ‘persistent’ picky eating is, largely because there is no one set definition of picky eating. One study showed that it peaked at around 38 months, another at around six years, and another still found that it remained relatively stable until age 11. Fussy eating also varies from country to country – for example, there is around an 11% higher reported incidence of picky eating in the UK (26% of children) compared to France and Germany (15%). All this makes it very hard to answer most parents’ big question: ‘when will they grow out of it?’
It is worth noting that, even if the studies all agreed with one another, they are only reporting on the average fussy eating of the children in their sample. And it is very unlikely that your child will reflect this average. Every child, every parent, and every parent-child feeding relationship is different.
So then a different question becomes important: 'how do I manage this stage as best I can, to help my child have the strongest chance of coming out of it as quickly and successfully as possible?’
When should I get help?
Whether you decide to work with me, or whether you look elsewhere, if you think of your child as a fussy eater, I would highly recommend looking into strategies to help them sooner rather than later.
There are almost always going to be things you can do to help your child with fussy eating, whatever their age.
I know that some parents feel that just ignoring fussy eating and hoping that it will go away under its own steam, is for the best. And actually, they may be right – but only if what they are doing in the meantime happens to be supporting their child to grow out of it quickly and successfully. Some parents and children get lucky in this respect – and others don’t.
Another common misgiving about looking for help with fussy eating is a desire not to make a big deal out of it. And I completely get this too. But any help worth its salt will not be encouraging parents to turn their child’s eating into ‘a thing’ – quite the opposite. One of the main focusses of good child feeding support is on defusing stress, anxiety, conflict and power struggles over eating.
Not all of us are going to be the most enthusiastic of eaters, and many of us are going to have some degree of dislike or sensitivity towards certain foods, and of course that is perfectly okay. But I talk to parents – mostly mothers – who have struggled for years with their children’s eating, worrying about nutrition and going to great lengths to accommodate eating preferences that impact meals at home, school, friends’ houses and restaurants. And it can spill out beyond mealtimes into our relationship with our child more widely, perhaps into our relationship with our partner or other family members, and even into our child’s own self-image and self-confidence.
In my experience, the idea that fussy eating is ‘typical’ or ‘normal’ can too often lead to parents counting on the fact that their children will grow out of it. This in turn can discourage parents from taking any action in the first place. Or if parents do take action and it fails, it’s all too easy to feel as though you’ve tried everything and nothing can be done, because this stage is somehow inevitable.
Not only is this disempowering for parents, but it can also lead to longer and bigger issues with a child’s eating than needs be. There are almost always going to be things you can do to help your child with fussy eating, whatever their age. And the sooner you start, the more years you are both likely to have of relaxed and enjoyable eating ahead of you.
Sarah is a family health coach with a specialism in child feeding. She offers one-on-one and small-group coaching to parents who want to change what their family eats for the better. If you think Sarah might be able to help you with your child's eating, please get in touch and ask for a free initial consultation.
If you’d like to read more about this topic, see Sarah's article on tips to tackle fussy eating.
Satter, E (1987) How to get your kid to eat... but not too much, Bull Publishing, Colorado
Taylor, C., & Emmett, P. (2019). Picky eating in children: Causes and consequences. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society,78(2), 161-169. doi:10.1017/S0029665118002586