Are you finding that mealtimes are becoming more about tantrums, tears and food everywhere but in your little one’s mouth? Most likely, you’re feeling frustrated, at the end of your tether and concerned that your baby is not getting enough healthy nutrition.
Do not despair… you are not alone!
Jess Beaton, nutritionist with One Handed Cooks, shares her advice on how to deal with food refusal and get finicky babies to eat.
5 top reasons why babies refuse food
1. "I’m busy growing!"
“Babies grow so much in their first few years of life,” Jess explains, “particularly from 6-12 months. They go through so many developmental leaps and milestones such as getting their first teeth, learning to roll over, commando crawl, stand up, even walk.” Babies are learning so much more about themselves and the world that they may have limited concentration for sitting still and learning to eat.”
2. "I just want a cuddle!"
One of the things Jess points out is that your baby may be feeling irritable, with food the last thing on their mind. For example, they be teething and experiencing pain and discomfort. Or they may have had a terrible night’s sleep and be cat-napping during the day. “There may be days they just don’t have the energy to sit there and explore food and they just want to sit there and have a quiet cuddle with you instead,” says Jess.
3. "I’m not feeling great"
If your baby hasn’t been eating well it may be that their iron or zinc levels are low. Iron and zinc (found in foods like meat, chicken, fish and eggs) is so important from around six months. “If your baby is deficient in these minerals,” explains Jess, “this can contribute to a lack of energy or a lack of appetite.”
4. "I’m not hungry today!"
Do you ever have days when you just don’t feel hungry? Just like adults, babies can go through phases when their appetite is lower than usual. “Your baby’s appetite can be affected by the weather, the amount of sleep they’ve had, or their mood in general. It’s perfectly normal for babies to eat different quantities on different days.”
5. "It’s making me gag..."
When dealing with a baby that’s refusing food, it’s important to understand that they all have their own sensory preferences. “Some love to get messy, while others will get really anxious at the thought of getting any puree on their hands or face,” Jess states. “Some babies like foods that are really soft and smooth and it may be that they have a more sensitive gag reflex than others who like big, bold flavours and who favour foods with crunch and texture. Babies who have less of a sensitive gag reflex will want to ditch the puree early and move on to finger foods.”
Now we understand why baby might not be chowing down, Jess advises the following...
6 top tips on how to deal with food refusal
1. Keep mealtimes relaxing
If your baby is refusing to eat, or starting to throw food around, try to avoid going into stern parent mode, issuing orders such as, ‘Don’t squish your peas!’ and ‘Don’t tip your plate upside down!’ Jess advises that if you’re using negative talk during meal times, your baby might start to feel a little bit more anxious at mealtimes. “If your baby does start throwing food, pick it up gently and put it back on the table,” says Jess. “Reward your baby for any positive behaviour.”
2. Encourage positive talk about food
Jess believes it’s vital to encourage your little one to engage with the food in front of them. This can be done by engaging in conversation about the food with your baby. “Say things like ‘Look at that yummy cucumber stick!’ ‘Can you see the different colours of the skin and the peel?’ If they’re playing with their food, ask them ‘What does that pea feel like when you squish it between your fingers?’”
3. Get your baby to mimic your behaviour
Even at seven or eight months old, if you demonstrate an activity, your little one is likely to follow. Jess gives an example: “If they’ve got to the stage where they’re picking food up and putting it towards their mouth, if you imitate their behaviour that’s a huge positive reinforcement for them and they’ll feel rewarded.”
4. Be patient
Food refusal requires extreme patience, especially if your baby goes through a phase of refusing a certain food over and over again. If this is happening, it may be that they’re not comfortable with what you’re dishing up. “A certain food might be too hard, too soft, too crunchy, too hot or have too much flavour for them,” says Jess. However, don’t give up! “Continue to offer the same food again, but don’t put any pressure on them to eat it. Kids may need to taste something 15 or 20 times before they enjoy it.”
5. Give choice and control
Tasting plates are a great way of offering a variety of foods and including elements from different food groups. “When you offer a new food or something your little one regularly refuses, always include one or two things you know they like. Ideally, put carbohydrates (say rice or pasta, bread, cereals), fruit, vegetables, some protein (meat, chicken, fish, eggs or legumes) and even some dairy.” Using the method of a “tasting plate” gives your child choice and control.
6. Offer a variety of textures
The other benefit of offering a tasting plate is that if your little one has several different foods on their plate, they can start off with foods they are comfortable with, such as fruit or soft, roasted vegetables. “Then, once they’re more settled and calm,” states Jess, “they can go on to explore more textured things like chicken tenderloins or meatballs, something that takes a bit more effort to chew. Babies will get anxious and cranky if they’re only presented with hard foods they can’t chew.”
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