5 Reasons Why Children Won’t Eat
For many “picky eaters”, sensory processing plays a big role in their refusal to eat foods. Simply put, if something feels gross in their mouth or on their hands, they aren’t going to eat it. The fancy therapeutic term we give for when a child doesn’t want to touch different textures is tactile defensive. And, when they don’t like certain textures in their mouth, or chew/bite/lick everything else but food, it is a sign that their oral sensory system needs some help.
Clues that your child may be refusing foods because of sensory input are: gagging, squirming, or seeming frightened by the sight, smell, touch, or taste of a particular food. Oral aversion also fits into this category. If your child has had medical testing, feeding tubes, severe vomiting, or a physical incident in or around their mouth/throat (even from a infancy), they may be scared to have anything come toward their mouth and be overly sensitive in the area.
On the other end of the sensory spectrum, a child may not be able to discriminate food in their mouth well and they will unsafely stuff a large amount of food into their cheeks like a chipmunk. This helps give them some feedback as to where the food actually is. These kids lose track of the food easily and can’t chew it well. Soft foods that aren’t easily discriminated (think mashed potatoes, cheese, etc.) are usually refused because they can’t manipulate them well in their mouth.
Sensory is often the hidden link in picky eating, and while a lot of parents haven’t heard of it before, I promise it is worth your time reading a little more on it. If you can understand why your child is refusing food from a sensory perspective, well, it changes everything. To understand the connection better, read sensory processing and picky eating. If you want to dive into a whole plan for sensory kids, then read the picky eating plan I used for my son.
3. Mechanics/Oral-Motor Skills
This one might be a little tricky for parents to figure out because you need to consider how well your child is chewing and swallowing their food. Therapists call this oral-motor skills. You can probably rule this out if you have a child over 2.5 that safely and easily transitioned onto table foods as babies. Signs that your child may not be chewing well are: choking/gagging after the food is already in their mouth for a few seconds/minutes, spitting out half chewed food, or throwing up food that looks like it has hardly been chewed. They also may have had difficulty breastfeeding.
Kids will start refusing to eat foods because they don’t know how to chew it or they are scared they are going to gag/choke/throw up again on the food they literally don’t know how to eat. They will often stick to a limited diet because they know they can eat those food safely. Head over to Oral Motor Exercises to learn more about how to help your child improve their oral motor skills.
Sometimes oral motor difficulties snow ball to include sensory defensiveness too, because when a child hasn’t eaten any other textures in a really long time or ever, they become very sensitive to them. These other textures may seem strange and even uncomfortable when they touch or feel them.
If your child never transitioned well to crunchy table foods, then you’ll want to check out How to Transition Toddler to Finger Foods and 8 Things You Can Do When a Toddler Refuses to Eat, even if your child is older than that. The simple techniques and tips are the same!
This can be a touchy subject for parents, we all have our comfortable eating habits and routines that we have already established for ourselves as adults. We often continue to do what is comfortable for us with our kids, but it isn’t always what leads us to teaching them habits that we really want them to have. If you don’t have regular meal times, pay attention to how frequently they are eating. Do you eat in front of the TV often, and/or mostly let your kids pick what they want to eat? If they aren’t eating well or willing to try foods, lack of routine may be the reason for it… or at least part of it.
I commonly see this compounded on top of one of the other 4 reasons kids don’t eat. When there is a problem with eating, we get overwhelmed and start grasping at straws just to get them to eat. This is another way the bad habits can begin and then play a role in poor eating. That’s not to say that you’re to blame, I mean our kids have to eat, right? And, we do the best we can with what we know. Don’t feel guilty about choices you’ve made in desperate situations.
What to Do When Your Child Won’t Eat
I have dozens of articles I’ve written about how to overcome picky eating (yes, there is hope) here on Your Kid’s Table, but I don’t want to leave you hanging here without a plan.
No matter what the combination of reasons above that are causing your child to be a picky eater, to get your child to eat when they refuse, you’ll want to start with not pressuring them during meals while putting a consistent routine in place for them like having regularly scheduled meals with no snacking in between. Then, focus on specifically addressing the underlying cause, whether that is sensory processing, medical, or oral motor skills. You can find all the links for those issues in the sections above.
You can plan out the best mealtime routine and get the free printable with all 9 tips here to hang on your fridge when you click here.
Once you have the routine solid, you can also use some of my favorite picky eating tips that can really help your child try a new food for the first time. I love to use dips (even if you think your child hates them, I show you how), fun tools like toothpicks (trust me) and this special cutter.
Plus, there are lots of novel ideas like making food fun, don’t worry I’m not talking about elaborate food scenes that you spend an hour cutting out. And, my favorite tip that can make a huge difference is cooking with your kids! I know everyone says that and parents think, “Not my kid”. But, hear me out. I show you how to do it, tell you why its important, and give you these recipes designed for picky eaters:
- Pumpkin waffles (added nutrition)
- Bruschetta bar (this seriously is the best dinner for ANY picky eater that likes bread)
- Carrot cake smoothies
- Quiche (customize for your child)
- Not-spicy homemade tacos (check out the very motivating taco truck that can come to the table!)
- Banana sweet potato bread
If you’ve tried a lot of these tips before and want to dig a little deeper (only use these after you have a routine and positive environment), then you can move onto my heavy hitting picky eating tips. These require a little more thought, but can have a huge impact. Read about how to get your child to explore new foods and build on what they are already eating.
I know you may be tempted to feel overwhelmed at this point, but resist! This page is here (pin it so you can come back). Remember, one step at a time!
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Getting More Help for Picky Eaters
Having a picky eater, let alone an extreme picky eater (click to read the difference), can be extremely overwhelming and paralyzing. I’ve experienced it myself and the worry can take over your life. But there are a few ways to get even more help:
- Come to the FREE 3 Keys to Turning Picky Eating Workshop with me! Yes, you can save your seat and listen as I talk in a lot more detail about how to turn picky eating around. You’ll even get to ask me questions about your child! Sign up here.
- Learn more about feeding therapy and if it would be a good fit for your child!
- Read my favorite picky eating book, written with parents in mind, Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating. This book will explain how and why to set up a no pressure environment for your child to eat in.
More Help for Picky Eaters
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Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 14 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.