My preschooler hardly eats – Is this normal?

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The drive to eat is motivated by different factors including age, illnesses, and the state of nutritional well-being.

My child lives on nothing, where does all his energy come from?

This is a common question for parents of preschoolers who seem extremely disinterested in food.

It is helpful to understand the process of food drive and desire. The drive to eat comes from a physical need to keep their bodies functioning and growing, basically keep them alive. The desire to eat comes from their experience around food. It could be an internal experience, so how food makes them feel when they eat. External experiences also affects desire to eat. Eating environment is extremely important in creating external feeding experiences.

Drive is affected by age, growth spurts, state of nutritional well-being or illness.

Age

A baby grows exponentially in the first 6 months of life where they double their birth weight. They continue to grow at a rapid rate until 12 months. After 12 months of age, their rate of physical growth decreases dramatically. Their brain development and desire to learn from the outside world starts to slowly increase.

Between 3-7 years of age, the body of a preschooler is cleverly able to channel the majority of nutrients to brain growth and development. The metabolism slows down to conserve energy and even though physical growth continues it is dramatically less than the baby and future teen years.

The drive of a preschooler to eat is metabolically less.

Growth Spurts

These are extremely common in the baby years. Studies have shown growth spurts continue to occur throughout childhood although between toddler and puberty they occur less frequently and for a shorter duration. During a growth spurt, there will be a bigger drive to eat. Outside of growth spurts, the drive to eat is considerably less.

State of Nutritional Well-being

A well-nourished child has a greater drive to eat than a malnourished child. Most children who have access to food will eat enough to meet their energy requirements. However it’s not uncommon for preschoolers to get micronutrient deficiencies due to their inconsistent diets. Even subtle micronutrient deficiencies can cause a decreased drive to eat. We call this “apathetic appetite”.

Illness

When we as adults are ill we often go off our food. Yet when our kids are ill and go off food for a while we panic. As long as your child is staying hydrated, give them some space to eat how they feel during an illness. What often happens is the drive to eat post illness is dramatically increased, so take advantage of post illness hunger.


The Desire to Eat

Internal experiences:

This could be previous or current reflux for example. A burning sensation post meals makes a child very nervous to eat foods. Resolved reflux doesn’t always guarantee good eating as the memory and trust in the food experience needs to be experienced first. So be patient.

Another internal experience that could negatively affect the feeding experience is constipation. A full colon doesn’t leave much space for the tummy to fill up with food. The feeling of fullness could come prematurely and thus decrease amount of food eaten. This unfortunately can become a vicious cycle and therefore seek help to sort this out.

External experiences


This will include the feeding environment that is stress or joy around mealtimes. Stress could be fighting with your child to eat, force feeding, bribing etc. which all create negative connotations. Using the mealtimes to resolve conflict between you and your partner or discipline your children creates a negative feeding experience.

Joy can be created by making mealtimes full of family traditions. Use it as an opportunity to speak about family dreams and fun future events and reminiscing about fun family past experiences. If your children look forward to mealtimes for the social interaction they will be more likely to eat some of the food.

Lastly, respecting your child’s fullness cues and trusting them to eat what they need of the healthy foods provided will set a foundation of trust and respect.

Remember your responsibility is to provide the time for eating, pleasant feeding environment, healthy food choices. Their responsibility is to eat what they need.

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