Getting your toddler to eat everything on his plate at each and every meal can feel like an exercise in futility. Notoriously picky and stubborn, toddlers would probably prefer to dine on chicken nuggets, French fries, and waffles for breakfast, lunch, and dinner — for the rest of their lives. But for some kids, their poor eating habits aren’t necessarily by choice; in fact, it can be a daily struggle that can adversely affect their health. That’s why parents should be aware of the signs your toddler needs feeding therapy.
So how can you determine if you have an unenthusiastic eater on your hands, or if the issue is more serious? "When it comes to toddlers, many pediatricians and well-meaning professionals brush off a child’s unwillingness to eat new foods as 'just picky eating' and assume the child will 'grow out of it,'" Melanie Potock, a pediatric feeding specialist and co-author of Raising a Healthy Happy Eater: A Stage by Stage Guide to Setting Your Child on the Path to Adventurous Eating, tells Romper. "This is a slippery slope because the research shows that 1 in 4 typically-developing kids will develop a feeding disorder which requires intervention with either a certified speech language pathologist or a licensed occupational therapist." So while it might be easy to dismiss your toddler’s limited menu as being super choosy (or thinking that he’ll eat when he’s hungry), there might be an underlying pediatric feeding disorder (PFD) issue at hand.
Here are some signs that might mean your child's eating habits have gone from picky to problematic.
1. Your Child Becomes Upset At Mealtime
Mealtime can be messy when you’re trying to get your toddler to eat. But when the mood at dinner crosses the line into discomfort or distress, it can be a big red flag that something is wrong. “If your child is showing signs of pain associated with eating and you’re worried, you should go with your gut,” advises Linn. Likewise, “a toddler who refuses to sit in his high chair, consistently throws food, plates or utensils and becomes upset when presented with new foods is more than ‘just being a toddler,’” says Potock. “That child is trying to communicate that eating is not enjoyable.”
2. Your Child Isn’t Growing
Despite your best efforts to get your kid to eat at every meal, he’s still now showing any signs of growth. “If all of your child’s siblings and his biological family members followed a different growth pattern and your child still appears quite small in comparison, there could be a feeding issue,” says Potock. If you’re unsure, you can take the Infant and Child Feeding Questionnaire on FeedingMatters.org to see if your child might need therapy.
3. Your Child Refuses To Eat Anything But His Favorite Foods
Your kiddo might have a preference for a certain kind of cereal, but if he’ll only eat one brand (and prepared a certain way), you may want to look into it. “A child may limit the foods they willingly eat to specific methods of preparation or presentation, specific brands, textures, temperatures, and/or flavors,” Adriane Ransom, a pediatric occupational therapist, tells Romper. “They may limit the number of foods they willingly accept and begin to drop foods from their diet rather than expand the numbers of foods they will eat.”
4. Your Child Gags Or Vomits Frequently
Sure, it’s insulting when your child gags on that delicious dinner you took over an hour to make. But when your child heaves on a daily basis (or pukes frequently), there might be a bigger problem. “When transitioning to solid foods, a child with a pediatric feeding disorder frequently gags or may even vomit on lumps or textures,” says Ransom. “You might find that your child has difficulty with chewing food enough before swallowing, too.” If that’s the case, it might be a good idea to speak to your child’s pediatrician to get diagnosed and be referred to a specialist.
5. Your Child Is Consuming Primarily Milk Or Liquids
Yes, it does the body good, but keep an eye out if your child is consisting primarily on milk or high calorie drinks. “A child with a PDF may not be able to drink from an open cup without a lot of excess mess and spills,” offers Ransom. “You may even find that she frequently chokes or gags on fluids.”
Fortunately, feeding therapy can help your child to overcome their eating issue — but it isn’t an overnight process. Once the underlying issues have been assessed, parents and caregivers can work together with an occupational therapist or a speech language pathologist to help your child overcome any problems. That way, mealtime will become more enjoyable and positive again — for everyone.
Melanie Potock, a pediatric feeding specialist and co-author of "Raising a Healthy Happy Eater: A Stage by Stage Guide to Setting Your Child on the Path to Adventurous Eating"
Adriane Ransom, pediatric occupational therapist