Toddlers are notoriously picky eaters, at least in my experience. You offer mashed potatoes, they want french fries. You give them crackers, they scream for chips. It's frustrating, to be sure, but it's usually their way of vying for independence. It's also, at times, scary. I mean, can a child really survive on Cheerios and yogurt bites? Turns out, there are red flags a toddler isn't eating enough that every parent should be aware of. You know, just in case.
According to RaisingChildren.net, being a "picky eater" is part of your toddler's normal development. Yes, it's frustrating, but it happens for a few reasons. For example, your child might be in-between growth spurts and, as a result, requires less caloric intake. (In other words, they simply aren't hungry.) They might also be more interested in what's going on around them at meal time, so it's easy for them to be distracted. And, of course, there's the undeniable fact that toddlers have small stomachs. While it's understandable you want to create a positive eating environment, and make sure your children are getting enough nutrition, there is a fine line between a child not eating enough due to normal developmental habits, and something more serious.
In a 2012 study, 25 to 35 percent of kids were considered to be "picky eaters." The results of the same study, however, found that it's typically parental expectations that are to blame for a child's "pickiness." For the most part, children are eating the right amount of food for their age and weight. Basically, it's a power struggle between stubborn toddler and concerned parent. But, again, there are some red flags you should be on the lookout for, especially if they're sudden, severe, and/or persistent.
They're Not Gaining Weight
According to KidsHealth.org, in the second year of their life your toddler should gain up to 5 pounds. They should have also reached "about half of their adult height and 90 percent of adult head size." Research also shows that a lot of pediatricians don't see weight loss as cause for concern. But if you don't feel your toddler is on par with what's recommended, talk to your pediatrician about how to make sure they stay on track.
Complete Food Avoidance
It's not abnormal for a toddler to reject a food group because of its color, shape, or because they've decided they don't like it anymore. But Elissa Myers, executive director of the Academy for Eating Disorders, tells Care.Com to look for patterns of food avoidance. Those patterns might signal the early stages of an eating disorder. Children as young as 3 have been hospitalized for feeding disorders, as reported in a 2007 edition of BCMJ. While it's not always the case — especially as young as toddlerhood — if you notice consistent food aversions, choking, vomiting, or hiding food, and other anxiety-specific symptoms with food, you should seek medical advice for how to move forward to help foster new, healthier habits.
Sudden Food Pattern Change
An abrupt or sudden change in pattern in eating habits is something to take note of, particularly if it's preventing weight gain. One possibility could be an undiagnosed allergy. Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) cites there are 170 foods listed that cause allergic reactions and a reported 15 million Americans have food allergies, including 5.9 million children under age 18. Thirty percent of those who have food allergies are typically allergic to more than one food. If your toddler rejects a food group, it may be time to get an allergy test to be sure it's not a sign of something more serious.
They're Gagging Or Choking On Food
Involuntary gagging or choking on food could indicate issues with acid reflux, digestive issues, or stomach sensitivities. Diseases such as Gastro-Esophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) happens when a valve at the lower end of the esophagus malfunctions. An estimated five to eight percent of children have this disease. The symptoms, aside from heartburn, vary and can include issues with the ear, nose, and throat. Regardless, if your toddler can't keep food down, it's worth looking into.
Unusual Sensory Issues
Children are often turned off by different appearances or smells of foods, so it's not entirely surprising when they want to avoid a specific type of food altogether. But if their avoidance is persistent or severe, consider talking to a doctor to rule out a sensory processing disorder (SPD). This disorder "affects the way a child processes messages sent to his brain from any of the five main senses — sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch," according to Parents. Pediatric dietitian Jessica Crandall, RDN, agrees, telling FoodAndNutrition.org that, "Eating fewer than 10 foods and really struggling to try new foods is beyond being picky and a red flag for a problem eater." The aforementioned diagnosis is a tricky one, and widely debated, though. The American Academy of Pediatrics urges pediatricians to approach the unrecognized disorder cautiously.
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