What to do if your child eats too little

Dr Philippa Rundle gives us her tips and tricks to make sure young children finish their meals.

I am often consulted by parents whose children spend up to an hour eating one or two meagre spoonfuls of whatever meal is being offered. The mother feels that her child is not eating enough, and in particular he is rejecting healthy foods such as fruit and vegetables.

The child is then fretful and hungry during the hours after the meal, and the parent is often cajoled into offering snacks to make up for the rejected meal. The net result is that the child gains considerable negative attention whilst playing with his meal, and thereafter when he complains of being hungry. He survives on unhealthy snacks.

This scenario is especially common if the child was an underweight baby about whom growth and weight gain was a concern; it also occurs commonly after the birth of a new sibling who seems to be competitive for his mother’s attention.

The first step is to refer to your baby’s health record and check that his height and weight are on or above the centile that he was at birth. If you don’t have a recent measurement, ask your health visitor to check the details for you.

If your child’s height is not maintaining the expected level, then you need to consult your GP for advice. If, as is usual, your child is quite healthy and gaining weight as expected, then it is a good idea to change your tactics at mealtimes.

Remember that children often tend to do the opposite of what their parents want. This means that if you try to persuade your child to eat, then he may be more likely to reject the food you want him to consume.

An alternative approach is to offer very small helpings of the family meal and remove whatever is left after twenty minutes without a fuss, having warned your child that this is what you are going to do. Resist all requests for food before the next meal, although you may offer water to drink. Although children may take two or three days to settle down to the new routine, within a week their appetite will have improved and meal times will become a pleasure rather than an ordeal.

After your child has eaten his meal satisfactorily reward him with some one to one attention with an activity of his choice.

What you are doing is allowing your child the choice of whether to eat or not, and his choice will depend on how hungry he is rather than on trying to gain approval from his parent. You will be helping him to regulate his intake for himself but within the limits of the foods you produce for him at mealtimes. Once he is eating properly at meal times, you can introduce healthy snacks, such as fresh fruit for extra energy between meals.

To speak with Philippa for individual expert advice on child behaviour call her on 09064006226 or view her profile.

View the full list of Experts who can offer advice on child behaviour issues.

Useful links from external sites

CBeebies Grown Up Support, Portion sizes for kids

Written by

Philippa Rundle

Philippa is a paediatrician with a focus on child behaviour and development. Also a specialist advisor to Gina Ford's website, her success rate for improving sleeping patterns in a fortnight stands at 100%.