Serious Reasons Not to React to a "Picky" Toddler

Feb 21, 2012 by

CHILDREN NEED PRACTICE to develop their abilities to deal with food. - photo by Anna Migeon

If you give your toddler some sticks of red pepper as part of her lunch, what should you do if she chews them up and spits them out?

  • Some parents will decide they need to find a way to make the peppers acceptable, like peeling them or disguising them in ranch dressing.
  • Other parents might tell the child to eat the peppers, maybe scold her for having spit them out, or find some other way of pressuring the child to eat them instead of spitting them out.
  • Others won’t try giving the child peppers again, worried only about getting something down the hatch, and will look for other foods the child is sure to eat.

But our problems, and our children’s, are likely to get much worse if we take any of these tactics. A toddler spitting out food doesn’t necessarily mean she’s picky. It might not be merely a preference she’s expressing.

Babies are born able only to suck.  Their stomachs aren’t ready for solid food and neither are their mouths.  Babies aren’t physically equipped to eat until they practice working their mouths. Different kinds of food give a child training in using their mouths. Their tongues, throats and jaws develop ability to do through doing. As children grow, they need to be introduced to textures and solids. Hard stick shapes like a piece of pepper or apple to practice munching develops a baby’s ability to not gag on foods, give her practice in moving solids around in the mouth with her tongue, strengthens the jaw, and gives her an awareness of what’s happening in her mouth. Other textures and shapes teach various skills that the growing child needs to deal with food.  Kids need time and practice. They need to feel free to try things and work on them without feeling pressure to do more than they’re comfortably able.

  • So if we try to make things easier for the child, by attempting to make the food more palatable, for example, by peeling the peppers in hopes she’ll swallow them, she  won’t get the chance to learn. If we disguise their taste, she won’t have a chance to get used to it. It’s like cracking a hatching chick’s shell for it to make things easier. The chick needs to crack its own shell in order to develop properly. Otherwise it will die.
  • Or if you stop presenting foods that the child rejects because she rejects them, she won’t have the chance to try again to see if she’s ready for them the next time. It’s like taking the ball away for good the first time your child tries to shoot a basket and misses. Even if it is just a preference, tastes do change, especially where there’s no pressure.
  • Or, perhaps worse, if you pressure the child to eat what he’s rejected, when he isn’t physically ready, it is probably quite alarming, even threatening. Kids don’t mind trying to nibble on things and not being able to and giving it up for the moment. They are ready to experiment and fiddle with food, especially if they are free to spit things out. If they are hungry, they have that drive to eat. They are curious and like to gain mastery.  If they gag a little, they don’t mind. But if you gag and then someone pressures you to eat it anyway, it surely provokes panic and insecurity. It is probably upsetting to have your dear Mommy trying to force you to eat when you feel you are going to choke on it. Surely some of the fits toddlers throw when people try to make them eat something is due to this feeling. It’s worse than being pressured because you missed the basket the first time you tried. A child is likely to become highly resistant and distrustful of both Mom and food.

So if your little darling spits out her food, don’t stop giving it to her. She needs to keep trying things. She needs to get familiar with all kinds of flavors, textures and shapes. If you leave her alone about it and remain cheerful and understanding, she will likely try it next time. That gives her another chance to work on her skills and development and get used to that food. Maybe that next time it will go down.

But it’s more important that your child keeps a positive view of eating and continues her development than whether or not she eats something today.

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Related posts:

How to prevent picky eating from ever starting, Part I

How to prevent picky eating from ever starting, Part II

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