Q: I have a 10-month-old daughter who used to eat anything, but now when I try to feed her vegetables she clamps her lips shut, cries, and pushes the spoon away. When we give her fruit or open the Cheerios box, all of sudden her legs start kicking, her eyes get wide, and she opens her mouth as wide as can be. What can I do to make sure she has a well-balanced diet and eats the veggies? Every mealtime is turning into a huge battle and my husband and I are starting to dread it.
A: You are not alone. There are so many babies who do this, and so many parents who worry about it! I have consulted with several pediatricians and they all tell me your baby will be just fine. She is getting the nutrients and calories she needs from fruits, cereal, and milk (be it breast or formula).
So you don’t have to worry about your daughter’s physical health. In fact, her behavior is actually letting you know that she is doing very well in many key areas of her development. She knows what she likes and doesn’t like, and is able to effectively communicate that to you. When you read and respond to her cues—in this case by not forcing her to eat what she is telling you she doesn’t want—you are teaching her that her feelings are important and that she is a good communicator. This builds her self-esteem and encourages her to develop good language skills.
It is important to avoid power struggles over eating. When parents get anxious that their children are not eating enough, there is the risk that they will begin to force the child to eat. This leads to several problems, including:
- Actually eating less. Research shows that letting children decide what and how much they want to eat leads to their eating more than those who are forced.
- A negative impact on the parent-child relationship. Children pick up on their parent’s frustration and may feel less secure in their relationship and connection to their parent.
- An increased chance that the child will have struggles with food later. When parents disregard their child’s cues and force her to eat, she may learn that her feelings are not important, and that she can’t trust her body’s signals telling her that she is hungry or full. This can lead to eating disorders and obesity later in life.
Talk with your pediatrician to get the assurance that your child is growing fine. In the meantime, here are some strategies you can use to encourage your child to eat and enjoy a broader range of foods:
- Let your child hold one spoon, while you feed her with another. Holding the spoon gives your child a sense of control over eating.
- Offer three to four foods at each meal (in small portions), including at least one new food. Offer the new food before you give her the old favorites.
- Don’t give up on new foods. Research has shown that you might need to offer a new food 10-15 times before your child will try it and know if she likes it.
- As your child grows, make mealtime fun by involving her in cooking—let her stir batter, spread butter on bread, dump veggies in the salad bowl, etc.
- Notice when your child tries something new. You licked the green bean. It’s great that you tried a new food.