Does your child seem to have no appetite and never get hungry no matter what you do? These mindfulness activities can help them tune into their hunger in a brand new way.
Your child is incredibly active, always on the go. You wait hours before offering them food to make sure they’re hungry. They only get milk with their meals, but still your child just never seems hungry! You’re not sure whether you’re more frustrated or you’re more worried about their health. The doc might have already mentioned a feeding a tube, and while you’d obviously do anything, this certainly isn’t a path you’d prefer.
You wonder if there’s anything else that can be done.
If any of that rings true to you, you’re in the right place. A poor appetite is probably one of the most challenging aspects of feeding for a parent and for a feeding therapist. There isn’t a lot of research on exactly how to help a child feel hungry, but one emerging strategy is mindfulness activities.
I’m going to teach you some that I’ve come up with and shared with my Mealtime Works students, but first, we’ve got to talk about why you’re child might have a poor or even non existent appetite…
Kids That Are Prone to a Poor Appetite
In my last post, I talked all about how to increase appetite in a child, and if you remember, not all kids really have a poor appetite, although at a first glance, it can seem that way. Many kids are able to boost their appetite with a few tweaks to how and when they’re eating, and of course, medication is an option too. That’s all discussed in that post, see the link above.
But, if you’d like to avoid medication and you’ve tried all the other strategies, there’s likely a reason that your child’s appetite went haywire. Here are some of the most common reasons that I’ve found in my work with kids that never seem to get hungry:
- Feeding tube – If your child has been on a feeding tube for any amount of time, especially when it’s been set to a slow feed, it greatly increases the chance that they will not know when they are hungry. Although feeding tubes are absolutely necessary in some situations and can save a child’s life, it does mess with those signals a child gets when it should be time to eat.
Their body quickly learns that they don’t have to think about eating because it’s automatic. And, when they are fed continuously and slowly, it’s like they are snacking all day long or for 10 hours while they sleep.
Many feeding therapists recommend trying some type of oral feeding, whatever is appropriate for the child, while they’re being tube fed and that it’s done as a bolus feeding, not a slow continuous feed. This helps the body understand the start and end of a meal. And, that allows the opportunity for hunger to begin.
Unfortunately, it’s very possible for a child to still not recognize or experience hunger signals months or years after a child has been taken off a feeding tube.
- Medical history – Just like with the feeding tube, if a child has experienced any medical challenges, long hospital stays, or digestive issues, then their appetite can also be affected. Because of pain or discomfort, they may not have much of an appetite or associate eating as something that’s enjoyable.
- Oral aversions – When a child has gagged, thrown up, or had a procedure with tubes in their mouth (like a ng tube), the physical and emotional experience of that can be traumatizing to their young minds that can’t understand what’s happening. As a result, a child with oral aversions may be terrified to have food or utensils in or near their mouth!
Children with oral aversions can develop poor appetites because when they’re pressed to eat, their adrenaline goes up out of fear and that shuts off their appetite. If that happens enough times, a child may inadvertently ignore their appetite all together.
- Small stomach size – When children have never been big eaters, it means that they’re stomach hasn’t stretched. And, that means it takes a very little amount of food to fill them up. That’s one of the reasons why your child might only eat 2-3 crackers and seem totally full. They actually could be!
Small stomach size doesn’t necessarily mean that a child has a poor appetite, but it could seem that way because they eat so little.
What Are Mindfulness Activities and How Can They Help Improve Appetite?!?!
There’s a huge disconnect between kids that don’t experience appetite and exactly how to improve something that’s not really tangible, outside of medication which has mixed results.
Mindfulness activities are a way to bridge that gap, and they can be used with kids as young as 1 year old, but you may have to make some adaptations, keeping your words very simple and using gestures to help them. These activities, or even conversations with your child, are designed to help them tune into their body, because, as you read above, at some point their body chooses to ignore those hunger signals.
By helping kids start to think about how their belly feels, they can learn to listen to those cues that tell them they’re hungry or full. These activities take time, and a lot of consistency. That means you’ll need to do them over and over again.
Expect that in the beginning your child may not get it, they might not seem to make any connection, it’s going to take time to break through the months or years of not feeling hungry.
I know that might feel stressful when you’re so worried about your child, but the best response is love and patience. Your child will sense that from you and enjoy these activities. And, of course, the last thing we want is for them to feel pressured to eat while doing these activities because that can backfire with even more severe picky eating. (Head to the best picky eating tip to learn more about NOT begging, bribing or rewarding your child to eat.)
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3 Mindfulness Activities That Could Make Your Kid Start to Feel Hungry!
I’m sharing three mindfulness activities to get you started, but they’re easily adaptable. Use games you have on hand that make sense and teach the same principle. Think of your own activities, and while I want you to strive for consistency, make sure these activities don’t turn into anything your child dreads.
Depending on what works best for you and your child, you can either set up a scheduled time to try these activities or use them nonchalantly, like you’re just having fun.
***Super Important Warning: It’s very important to keep this positive, don’t come from a place of desperation or pressure. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend any of these activities unless your child is low weight and in danger of a feeding tube. I don’t use these activities for picky eaters only kids with very poor appetites.***
- Pop the Pig – Do you know this game? You take small plastic hamburgers and put them into the pig’s mouth on your turn. They fall down into his belly and as he gets full his chef jacket busts open. I like to use this game to give kids with poor appetite a visual of a belly filling up. This is especially helpful for kids that only take 1-2 bites of food and are done.
How to Set it Up: Pull out the game and get it all set up. Also, have a meal or snack for you and your child that has 3-5 foods on the plate. Make sure you have a few foods that your child typically eats. Plan to play during a mealtime.
You’re going to tell your child that they’re going to eat with the pig, so every time the pig eats a burger (that they push in to his mouth), they eat a bite of food about the size of the toy hamburger. As you start to play this game, you want to point out, “Pig’s belly is not full yet, he needs more food still.” Then, ask your child, “Do you have more room left in your belly too?”
If they say they’re full after a very minimal amount of food, turn the pig around and show them how big the inside of pig’s belly is. Then, tell them their belly is about the same, and that they might be able to fit a few more bites like pig. Ask them to pick how many more bites.
Alternative: If you don’t have Pop the Pig, try taking a small glass jar that you can put pom poms or cotton balls into to represent filling up their belly.
Warning: Don’t push your child too hard to fill up the jar or pig, remember they may have a very small stomach, we want to expand it slowly. They may not be physically capable of eating as much as you’d like them too. Slowly increase how full the jar is getting from one time to the next.
2. Stickers on a belly – With the same concept in mind, you can play a similar game with a piece of paper that has the outline of a body on it, with a big circle for the belly (see the picture below) and as your child eats, they put a sticker in the belly. For this activity, you’ll want to tell your child that the picture is of their belly, and that they’re going to track how full their belly is getting so they know how much to eat.
Again, remember not to push too hard, you want your child to feel successful. So the first time you try this activity, you’ll want to aim for 2-3 bites more of food than they typically eat, and then continue to grow the number, until they’re eating an age appropriate amount.
You can read more about how much your child should be eating in toddler and preschool portion sizes, but as a rule of thumb, it’s 3 tablespoons of food for every year of age they are. This is a very rough measure because caloric needs very from child to child.
So very generally speaking, a 1 year old needs 3 tablespoons of food at every meal. And, a 3 year old needs 9, and a 6 year old needs 18 tbsp. The older your child gets, you can start to think in cups, as 4 tablespoons equals 1/4 cup of food.
3. Talk it out – This is the most simple and direct way to work on mindfulness with your child because you can have little conversations while you’re eating, running errands, driving in the car, etc. In fact, I want you to have them at different times during the day so they can begin to make those connections to their hunger.
You’ll want to say to your child, “Oh my goodness, my belly is rumbling. Can you hear it?”
When they say “no” it’s your chance to say, “Oh, when my tummy gets hungry, it sort of make a grumbling sound sometimes, like I can feel it shaking. Does yours every do that?”
If they say no, then you’ll want to dig a little deeper and say, “Well, tummy’s don’t always grumble, sometimes it’s just feeling like your stomach is hurting.”
Then, you can continue to talk about the different ways we experience hunger. Always checking in on if your child has experienced that. Most likely, if they have a poor appetite, they aren’t going to relate to anything your suggesting, but you’re teaching them what to pay attention to.
When it’s close to a meal, you can then say, “Oh, my belly is telling me it’s time to eat because it’s been a long time since I ate last. It’s been a long time since you ate last too. Is your belly telling you anything?” Wait for them to think about it, then if they say “it’s not”, you’ll want to follow up with, “Well, it’s time to feed your belly because it has been a long time. Let’s try to fill it up so that the next time you can feel your belly telling you that you’re hungry.”
Let these conversations go where your child takes them, but remember to keep it focused on them thinking about how their belly feels and connecting that it’s been a long time since they ate.
Again, I can’t say it enough, it crucial that this isn’t coming from a place of worry and desperation. Focus on the mindfulness in these conversations and keep it as light as possible. If you start to feel frustrated, drop it for the time being!
Now you’re armed with 3 different mindfulness activities to improve appetite, and they can’t be adapted in so many ways. I want to hear which one of them sounded exciting for you to try? Tell me in the comments below! I love to hear from you!!
More on Kid’s Eating
Are You Taking Picky Eating Personally? This is Why You Shouldn’t
10 Extreme Picky Eating Red Flags that You Need to Know
Gardening with Kids: Improve Your Kid’s Eating!
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.