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Are you raising a picky eater?
By Melanie Plenda
The food goes in, the lip goes up. The nose twitches ever so slightly, and then puh. The well thought-out, carefully loved over dinner falls disdainfully from his open gob. He gives his mom and dad a look as if to ask how dare you people feed me something so repugnant, so awful as, gasp, broccoli.
The rejected and frustrated parents brand him: picky eater.
Every parent at some point has this experience at dinner, lunch, breakfast or snack. The infant or toddler won't eat anything. Fearful the little darling may just starve, parents take to books, the Internet and the pediatrician looking for advice on why their babies don't want to eat.
"Studies will tell you about 50 percent of parents will mention that their babies are fussy eaters," said Dr. Tom Tomanek, a Merrimack pediatrician. "It's that common. It's a normal part of (a child's development)."
So why is the baby so picky, and are the parents and their own likes and dislikes to blame?
The world is an instinctually uncertain place when it comes to food.
"What they've tied it to is food neophobia, or fear of new foods," said Karrie Kalich, Associate Professor of Health Science and developer of the Early Sprouts program at Keene State College.
"It kind of stems back to hunting and gathering times when, if you were sent to the woods to pick your food, you were fearful that you would pick something poisonous. Well, young children are really born with this fear of new foods, particularly bitter foods which tend to be vegetables."
Parents do have some hand in what a baby will eat, beginning in utero, Kalich said. From the beginning, the baby is getting everything mom is getting and so begins the child's first food experience. The wider the variety mom takes in, the more food baby is exposed to, she said.
That said, some studies show that moms who breastfeed also contribute to raising a less picky eater, Kalich said. This is partly because the milk tastes slightly different each day because mom eats something different each day.
Parents also contribute to pickiness if they use food as a way to soothe an infant when he or she cries, said Tricia Groff, pediatrician with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon. It is a better idea she said, to teach the child to soothe itself in the absence of food.
"Some parents always rely on feeding their baby to calm them," she said. "It is important to realize that sometimes a baby is not hungry, but simply needs a way to help calm themselves. Babies who are always fed until they fall asleep at bedtime, for example, may continue to rely on feeding to soothe themselves and this can increase their risk for being overweight later on life."
This stays true as the child moves on to solid foods: they just might not be hungry. Especially, said Chuck Cappetta, a Nashua Pediatrician and founder of the nonprofit Granite State Fit Kids, if parents are serving up portions fit for mom or dad.
"So we go to the grocery store and we give him a little piece of cheese and then, 'if you're good, we'll go to the cookie aisle and get you a snack that's hanging out there.' So by the time they get home for dinner, they've nibbled all day," Cappetta said. "By the time they sit down for dinner, we're frustrated. Because that snack that for us (parents) was really nothing for their little tummy, which really doesn't grow much over the first four years-- they are in a hibernating metabolic mode, they don't need a lot of gas to keep their car full-- is full. They're kind of sitting there, saying 'mom I'm full.'"
The worst thing a parent can do at this point, Cappetta said, is force the child to eat.
"The analogy that I say is, if I knock on your door at midnight tonight and you open the door and I have a pizza in my hand," he said. "And I say, 'you're hungry.' And you say, 'no I'm not.' And I shove pizza down your throat; it's not a good moment for me giving it to you. And it's not a good moment for you receiving it."
And don't worry, no baby ever starved overnight, Cappetta said, "When they're hungry they'll eat, when they're not hungry they won't and they barf if they've had too much."
But as a child learns to eat solids, parents can begin to cultivate baby's palate, Groff said. While children naturally like foods that are sweet, salty and fatty, veggies and whole grains are a harder sell. So, each of the experts said, start those foods early to get the baby used to them. The common understanding is that a child may have to taste a food as many as a dozen times before accepting it.
"Parents may misinterpret a baby 'rejecting' their first taste of broccoli as 'disliking' this food," Groff said. "However, when exposed repeatedly, the baby would likely learn to like this food. More exposure means more familiarity with the food and increased chances that the child will accept the food."
And after a year, they change up on you, said Tomanek. In the first year of life, a baby should gain about 15 pounds. But in the year after the child turns 1, he or she only gains about five pounds, and then only about three and a half pounds after they turn 2.
"What happens is they are gaining at a much slower rate, which would then say they aren't eating as much," Tomanek said. "And if they aren't eating as much, they aren't as hungry and if they aren't as hungry they can afford to be real picky. If you're hungry, you can't be fussy. You'll eat whatever's is in front of you."
But parents aren't totally off the hook, Kalich said. Some of the best foodie inspiration for kids comes from their parents. As the child gets older, she said, he or she will take notice when mom or dad doesn't eat their broccoli and will likely do the same
She suggests stocking cabinets with healthy foods, but also not demonizing unhealthy foods. She said don’t have a special cabinet for junk food and don't deny a child a sugary or fatty snack if he or she wants it once in awhile. Denying the food only makes the child want it more and will encourage him or her to overeat it once the kid has a chance to eat it.
Also, Groff added, "If parents are trying to feed their child carrot sticks for a snack, but are having potato chips themselves, the child will absolutely pick up on this. Parents may have to change their habits in order to help their child accept healthier foods."
Groff suggested also limiting television time, because most advertisements are for junk or fun foods with little nutritional value.
Further, don't become the family short order cook, Tomanek said. If a child rejects his dinner, don't make the macaroni and cheese you know he'll eat, the doctor said. This just teaches the child to hold out for a tastier option than what he or she is initially offered, Tomanek said, and this means the parents will be cooking separate meals for a long time to come. Instead, wait a little while and offer the child the same food again. If the child is hungry, the child will eat it. If not, Tomanek promises the world will not end the child will not starve or necessarily even be unhappy, if he or she goes to bed without dinner.
In the end, it's all really very simple, Cappetta said.
"Let babies acknowledge their cues," he said. "(When it comes to) eating, drinking, pooping and peeing, you and I as parents, will never win."
Melanie Plenda is a mom and a freelance writer.
Last updated by Parenting NH Administrator Feb 28, 2012.