NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
FEEDING A PICKY EATER
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.
Q. My 3-year-old son is a very picky eater. As we weaned him from baby food and bottles around age 1, he refused to eat anything other than yogurt and crackers. I assumed it was just a transition issue that would sort itself out as he grew older.
He is now almost 4 and refuses even yogurt, sticking only to Cheerios, crackers, apples, applesauce and milk. He takes a daily multivitamin. He continues to grow taller and gain weight at a normal rate.
I’ve encouraged him to try new foods but I haven’t pressured him too much because he can be very determined when he makes a decision. Am I doing the right thing to wait it out?
A. You don’t have much choice. You can’t force a child to eat.
You’re doing the right thing by giving your son a daily multivitamin (be sure it also contains iron), taking him to the pediatrician for regular growth checks – and, hardest of all, not pressuring him too much. We urge you to see if you can make the move to not pressuring him at all.
Why? Every time he senses your attention to what he’s eating, you’re giving him power over you. The power struggle may distract him from the pleasures of eating. Even a little pressure can turn the dinner table into a battlefield. Parental hovering can be counterproductive whether it’s pressure (“just one bite”) or praise (“you tried the broccoli – good job”). Cajoling and bribing may backfire.
Let eating be his issue, not yours. Holding back can be difficult when you fear you may not be fulfilling one of your most important responsibilities as a parent – making sure your child is well fed. Yet you may help him get closer to this goal when you turn it over to him.
Your job is to present him with the food, whether or not he eats it. At each meal, you can add to his standard fare a small amount of a new food he hasn’t tried, just enough so that if you have to throw it away you won’t feel frustrated or discouraged – which he’s bound to notice.
Many children need to be presented with a small amount of the same kind of food at 15 successive meals before they’ll give it a try. Children’s taste buds mature over time. Tastes that bother them at an earlier age are easier for them to accept later.
For some children, specific food textures may be troublesome. So as you pick a new food to introduce, start with ones that aren’t too different in taste and texture from those he likes.
Since milk seems to be his only source of protein, you might try adding protein-rich food to his diet – for example, ground meat, egg, beans or nuts. Perhaps you can spread a teaspoonful on the crackers he likes.
Your other job is to keep mealtimes relaxed and fun. You may need to take a deep breath and accept that your son will only eat what he decides to put in his mouth. Regular checks from a pediatrician can reassure you. A consultation with a nutritionist may help, too.
When mealtimes are sociable rather than stressful, the positive associations of being together and enjoying each other’s company are likely to make the food on his plate seem tastier – but not if he gets even the slightest inkling of your strategy.
(For more information: “Feeding: The Brazelton Way,” by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D. Da Capo Press.)
Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.
Dr. Brazelton heads the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is Director of Strategy, Planning and Program Development at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.
Reprinted with permission from the authors.