Child Doesn’t Eat Enough

Eating problems are common among people of all ages. One concern that a parent may have is that his or her child is not eating enough food. Let’s look at the reasons behind lack of appetite and learn what parents can do to help.

If your child doesn’t seem to be eating enough food, consider the following tips:

It May be a Matter of Perception
Sometimes the child’s food intake is actually fine, despite appearances to the contrary. In fact, sometimes parents argue over whether there is or isn’t an actual problem. The best way to clarify the issue is to seek a medical opinion. Your pediatrician will compare your child’s weight gain against those of his peers and also against his own developmental curve. Let the doctor know exactly what the child eats (and doesn’t eat). She’ll put all the facts together to determine whether the child is ingesting sufficient calories and nutrients. and to see whether further investigation is warranted.

Consider Possible Medical Causes
A consultation with a doctor is important because, in addition to ascertaining the existence and severity of an eating problem, the doctor can diagnose underlying medical causes.  For example, certain intestinal bacteria might be at the root of the problem. Thyroid conditions and other metabolic problems might exist, making it seem that the child is eating less than he or she actually is. Food sensitivities, mood issues, anxiety and other emotional problems can also play a role in low appetite.

Of course, it might turn out that there are no medical reasons for the lack of interest in food. Sometimes a child just doesn’t enjoy food all that much. In that case, the doctor can speak to the child about the importance of eating breakfast and/or other meals, or eating larger quantities of food or making higher calorie food choices – whatever needs to be addressed. Kids are much more likely to take the doctor seriously than to listen to Mom or Dad on this subject. Many doctors will also refer a child to a nutritionist for specific instruction and support. Nutritionists and dietitians can help design an individualized child-friendly menu plan that provides adequate nutrients and calories.

Consider Alternative Treatment
If the doctor gives the “all clear” parents may still want to enlist the help of an alternative health practitioner. Naturopaths, homeopaths, herbalists and other alternative healers have different methods of assessment and treatment. They may uncover a biological process that the regular doctor doesn’t consider. They also have their own methods of intervention. Sometimes this route can make a positive difference.

Make More Child-Friendly Meals
Even if the doctor doesn’t follow up with professional intervention around menu planning, it may be important for the parent to consider the role of food preferences in the child’s eating problem. Sometimes the child doesn’t like the menu offerings.  Maybe he’d be happy to eat brown-sugar maple-flavored oatmeal for breakfast, but Mom is serving the “healthier” plain oats with a bit of salt added. Or, he might be interested in french fries and burgers, but Dad is making baked potatoes and meatloaf. Let’s face it – almost all children enjoy a different menu than their parents do. If a parent makes sure to offer the kind of food that a child likes – he or she will eat more of it! That doesn’t  mean go ahead and serve generous helpings of junk food! Instead, try using spices and flavoring to make food more enticing. Parents can enlist the help of a dietitian themselves, in order to get ideas on how to make healthy food that kids will actually eat.

Minimize Attention to Eating Patterns
Although parents can make a “mental note” about their child’s eating habits, it’s usually not a good idea to let the child know that you have serious concerns in this area until AFTER a doctor has also expressed such concerns. When arranging for a medical consult for an older child or teen, a parent can just say something like, “I don’t know if it’s me or you – but I’m wondering if your eating patterns are O.K. We’ll let Dr. Smith decide. I’ve made an appointment for Tuesday at 4 p.m. ” Before Dr. Smith’s announces a problem, the parent can just keep records of the child’s eating habits without saying much to the child about it. Children don’t tend to respond positively to parental urges to eat more or differently.

Consider Other Lifestyle Issues
The less your child exercises, the less he needs to eat in order to maintain his weight. The truth is that your child will be more interested in food if he gets out to play some sports, go for a regular walk, ride a bike or otherwise move around at least 30 minutes a day. Turn off the T.V. and computers for a half hour each day and show your child where the skateboard is!

Consider Psychological Causes
If you suspect that your child doesn’t eat enough in order to round up some concern and attention from you, then experiment with giving that youngster more attention. However, give him or her attention for everything under the sun – except for not eating enough. (As mentioned above, be careful NOT to talk to the child about eating more. When you see him not taking food or not finishing food on his plate, DON’T encourage him to eat just a little more or clean his plate. You are accidentally reinforcing inappropriate behavior when you attend to it.)

Some psychological issues go far deeper than behavioral problems. If your simple behavioral interventions fail to have a positive impact, there may be something else going on. In this case, a mental health professional such as a child psychologist or a child psychiatrist is the best one to diagnose and treat the problem.

Keep in mind too, that all children’s problems are worsened by conflict at home. See if you can “de-stress” your marriage (or divorce) with or without professional help. Also check your parenting skills – if you know that you are expressing excessive anger, take serious steps to address that problem; anger doesn’t cause any one specific developmental problem but certainly contributes to every one. Children can have mental health problems for purely biological reasons, but the emotional environment at home can affect the intensity and course of the problem.

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