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Helping Avoid Picky Eating in Babies and Toddlers
Read time: 4 minutes
What to know about picky eating in babies and toddlers
Picky eating behaviors are common in babies and toddlers
There are strategies to help reduce picky eating tendencies
Mealtime can and should be an enjoyable experience for the whole family
Whether you’ve just started solids with your baby, or you’re noticing your toddler is starting to turn their nose up at their once favorite foods, you’ve probably wondered about how to help avoid the picky eating stage.
While picky eating among little ones is common, many strategies will help make mealtime and eating positive experiences for both you and your little one.
Why are babies picky eaters?
Many babies may exhibit seemingly picky eating behaviors, such as making faces, turning their heads away from food, getting fussy in the highchair, crying during mealtime, or keeping their mouths clamped shut.
Why are toddlers picky eaters?
Toddlers, on the other hand, tend to exhibit picky eating behaviors that peak around 18 months.2 This refusal of new foods is called ‘food neophobia’.12 During this time your toddler may be wary of trying new foods, or even a food they previously enjoyed.
There is some thought that this is an innate survival mechanism for the newly mobile toddler to avoid eating harmful foods that could be poisonous or dangerous.12
Of course, toddlers today are not in the wilderness foraging for their meals and are generally not at risk of encountering dangerous foods. However, it’s thought that they remain genetically hardwired to reject a new food even before tasting it.2
All of this can amount to very frustrating mealtimes for you and your little one!
The good news is that this phase usually doesn’t last too long, and most children begin to become more open to foods by the time they are 5 years old.12
Not sure where to start with picky eating? Come chat with our team of registered dietitian nutritionists, fellow moms, and lactation specialists, available from Monday – Friday 8 am – 6 pm (ET). Chat now!
Is picky eating harmful?
Normal picky eating that occurs in most children is usually not harmful. Especially if you implement strategies to continually introduce new and disliked foods so that your little one can eventually become a more adventurous eater.
If picky eating is left to develop into a more severe case where only a small number of foods are eaten daily, such as highly selective eating or problem eating; or if your child is diagnosed with ARFID (Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder) or has a food sensory sensitivity, it could lead to nutrient shortfalls, constipation, and other problems.21213
With a more serious case of selective eating or sensory concerns, getting the help of a registered dietitian nutritionist as well as a speech or occupational therapist to help with feeding will be an important strategy.
Tips to help manage picky eating in babies and toddlers
Allow your baby to self-feed
Self-feeding is an important skill for babies to master.
While it can be messy, letting babies explore their food with their fingers and spoon at their own pace is a great way to help foster a relaxed, positive feeding environment.
Read more: Teaching your Baby to Self-Feed
Repeatedly offer new and disliked foods
Sure, it can be frustrating to continuously offer your baby foods they constantly refuse, but giving your baby the chance to see, smell, touch, lick, or squish a food is exposure that can eventually lead your baby to taste it.6
As your child gets older, getting them more comfortable with foods can be done by having your child help prepare the foods for mealtime.15 Often by about 18 months your little one may be ready to help out a bit.
Letting them help mix, measure, stir, scoop, or even chop once they are ready and able allows more exposure to the foods: touching, smelling, playing, and even eventually tasting.
Try different tastes and textures often
You may notice that your baby finds soft foods more palatable than crunchy, or lightly seasoned foods more enjoyable than plain. Continue to offer different tastes and textures so that your little one may eventually accept all different foods.
Always be sure to offer foods that are the right size and consistency for your baby and their development to reduce the risk of choking.6
Learn about: Preventing Choking in Infants and Toddlers
Use the Division of Responsibility
Feeding and eating are some of the few things your little one has complete control over. While you can provide a wide array of healthful foods for your little one, you cannot (and should not!) control whether they eat or how much they eat.
This is why following the Satter Division of Responsibility (sDOR) may be helpful.
The sDOR states that, “Parents should take leadership with the what, when, and where of feeding and let your child determine how much and whether to eat of what you provide.”
This mean you are providing the nutritious foods at each meal while your child decides what and how much of those foods they will eat.
Following this method allows your child to become a more confident and a more capable eater.3
Giving your child the autonomy to choose what they want to from the meals and snacks you’ve provided, and how much they need to feel satisfied helps them tune into their own hunger and satiety cues and become more competent eaters.4
Provide low-pressure, balanced meals when possible
Make sure to offer your child a balanced plate with healthy foods. Include at minimum one protein, one whole grain, and one vegetable and/or fruit. Make sure there is at least one food item that you know your little one will eat.
This way you know your child has nutritious options to choose from while you let them decide which of those foods they’d like to eat, and how much of them.
While there is no one-size-fits-all food plan for picky eaters, you can find recipe and meal suggestions here: Picky Eater Meal Plan: Recipe and Snack Ideas.
Please note that many of these suggestions may be for older toddlers 2 years and up. Be sure to make changes in the food offerings depending on your child’s feeding and eating abilities.
Eat with your child during structured mealtimes
Having structure and predictability with family mealtime, versus allowing your baby to graze on preferred foods all day long, teaches them that they can expect a consistent feeding pattern when they’re hungry and that they can stop when they’ve had enough.9
Read more: Family Meals: Developing Healthy Habits
No screens or pressure
Aim to feed your little one in a place that is free from distractions and without any coaxing or bribing to try new foods or take one more bite.
Pressure, coaxing, and bribing your child to eat can lead your little one to override their satiety cues to please the parent.10 We want feeding and eating to be enjoyable for your child as well as for you!
Respect your child’s appetite
Just like adults, babies, and toddlers will have days and meals when they’re more or less hungry or interested in some foods but not others.
Remember, some degree of picky eating is normal, but with persistence, you can help guide your little one to a lifetime of healthful eating.
Although most picky eating and food refusal issues will resolve over time, some may not, and your pediatrician can help refer you to the appropriate resources for help.
Check out our Picky Eating Guide for more tips!
We know parenting often means sleepless nights, stressful days, and countless questions and confusion, and we want to support you in your feeding journey and beyond.
Our Happy Experts are a team of lactation consultants and registered dietitian nutritionists certified in infant and maternal nutrition – and they’re all moms, too! They’re here to offer personalized support on our free, one-on-one, live chat platform Monday - Friday 8am-6pm (ET). No appointment needed, no email or sign-up required. Chat Now!
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