If I was asked to think of one query that every mother walking in to my clinic over last 35 year had asked; it would be “My child never eats! Do something” with varying facial expressions. Fortunately 99% were wrong and almost an equal percentage of mothers actually meant “my child does not eat when, where and what I wish him/her to eat”.
One of the stories:
“My child does not eat.” This 2 yr old child was normal in weight & height although slightly anemic.
“What does the child take?” I asked. “Only milk and 2 biscuits in a day” was the reply.
“How much milk?” was the next question? She went on the defensive before she answered, “Because he does not take anything I give him 6 bottles from the time he wakes up till he sleeps”. “Six bottles of 200 ml?” I asked incredulously. “Yes, but doctor he does not put anything else in his mouth the whole day!” She was on the verge of crying.
I explained her, “1200 ml of milk in a day! From tomorrow, you drink an equal quantity of milk whenever you give him a bottle and tell me how much food you are able to eat over and above that. You give milk thinking he does not eat; he does not eat knowing that he will get milk if he does not eat. Drinking from a bottle requires a minimal effort so he prefers to say no to eating. His stomach is full all the time and in last 2 years your son has not experienced hunger. Secondly, what should worry you is that milk cannot provide all that a growing body needs in terms of nutrients; hence the child is anemic and if this continues, he would not be able to keep up with the expected physical growth.
She understood and immediately corrected herself and reported after a month that child is eating almost everything.
The same story repeats; somewhere it is not milk but because child is not eating, chocolates, biscuits, chips, etc. are given. Some mothers say child is fussy and eats only potatoes or does not eat veggies. Another common grouse is “child eats only 1 chapati”, ”“eats very little as compared to his cousin who is same age, etc., etc. These mothers expect the child to obediently eat whatever (quality & quantity wise) is offered and don’t hesitate in forcing the child as they want to satisfy themselves, “My child ate 2 chapatis!”
What they don’t realise is that force-feeding causes negative emotions surrounding feeding and mealtimes in general. This child identifies food with force and we know that all of us to do not like to do anything forcibly. I ask these mothers, “Would you eat 1 chapati extra just because your husband or M-I-L wants you to?” & they get the message.
What parents have to realise and accept is that it is not just a question of eating but inculcating discipline in the child. The child has to be taught and trained in a manner so that they understand what parents will decide and what the child can decide.
Few tips & tricks
- Parents to decide what the child will eat and when the child will eat (same time as that of the rest of the family and what every one eats – barring spices & low-calorie foods) and child will decide how much to eat. Every child has a natural ability to sense when he/she is hungry and when full. Don’t we remember ‘demand feeding ’ in a new-born? The demand is their feeling of hunger.
- Discipline the child – how I train mothers who complain child is eating everything else but food. I tell them (both parents & grand parents, if they are around) to control their love for 2-3 days for larger gains. They are told to STOP coaxing the child to eat. At breakfast they have to ask ‘we are having break fast, you want to eat?’. Child says no. ‘fair enough; but lunch is at 1 and you won’t get anything till then.’ Repeat the same at lunch and say ‘fine. You will only get a banana at 5 pm’. Everybody involved has to ensure that child doesn’t get anything in between. Child should feel the hunger and how it feels to be hungry for few hours. No child can bear hunger beyond one day and if the hunger can last two days – something is medically wrong. Most mothers have a beaming smile when they report, “Rohan asked for food!”. Believe me it is not barbaric.
- Children (even toddlers) can enjoy a wide variety of foods. It is up to us how to encourage them to enjoy family meals and make them try a wide range of foods, with varying tastes, colours, textures and flavours. Catch them young applies more to eating than sports.
- Many mothers feed the child before the family sits to eat. These children take longer to start eating on their own and remain fussy eaters for long. I ensured that all my daughters and now my grand-D also was introduced to family meals at 18 months.
- A child needs a role model; if the role model is fussy – ‘I don’t eat brinjals or why there is no meat today’ – you can guess how the child will behave? If the whole family eats balanced and varied meals, the child is sure to follow.
- If your child does not eat well for a day or two; don’t get panicky and get in FORCE mode. Even we don’t feel like eating some days and hate force on those days.
- Introduce newer things with regularity; some may be rejected initially. Don’t despair. Try again and success will be yours.
Remember, a parent’s role is to decide what and when to offer meals, but if the child is allowed to decide whether or not to eat and how much to eat, peace prevails.
Dr Chander Asrani, father to three daughters and grand father to one, is a post graduate in Family Medicine. He has over 35 years in clinical practice, launched www.growingwell.com in 2000 and since then has been writing on various subjects. Know more about him at about.me/drasrani.