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What is fussy eating?

Fussy eating is common in young children, with up to a third of children around two years of age going through this stage.1 Fussy eating can take the form of refusing to eat foods, a lack of interest in food, eating particularly slowly, and reduced appetite.2

However the real impact may be much greater – a survey has shown that the percentage of children identified as fussy eaters increased from 35-50% from 12-24 months of age.3

Fussy Eaters Prevalence GraphAdapted from Carruth BR et al, 2004

The good news is that this is usually a phase that children grow out of and they will eventually start to accept a wider range of foods.1 Nevertheless, for many parents, this fussy eating phase can cause a lot of stress, particularly at mealtimes. If you’re the parent of a fussy eater, it’s natural to be concerned that your child might be missing out on important nutrients. Concerns of mothers have been shown to be that a lack of adequate nutrition over a prolonged period of time at a young age can lead to slowed growth and development, susceptibility to illness, a lack of appetite, a lack of energy and a reduced ability to concentrate at school.4

Your child may have good and bad food days, so if your child doesn’t eat everything you give them at each meal it may not be a problem. It is important you look at what your child eats over a week rather than just a day or at each meal to get a better view.5 What a child eats is more important than when a child eats.   

Fussy eating can be caused by a number of things, including:

  • Food ‘neophobia’: A term used to describe fear of new foods, which is thought to derive from evolutionary ‘survival’ precaution. For example, eating poisonous berries6
  • Around the end of the first year, a child’s growth rate slows down which might lead to decreased appetite1
  • Your child - especially if they’re a toddler - may be experiencing a growing sense of independence so refusing food can be a way of asserting themselves1

Some difficult behaviors may occur due to a big or sudden change in a child’s life and environment, for example, moving house, starting playgroup or the birth of a sibling. It can be a way to seek attention, even if the attention is negative.7

Research suggests that young children require a minimum of 10 exposures to a new food before they accept it.8  But in a survey of caregivers, the highest number of times they offered a new food before deciding the child disliked it was 3-5.3 Perseverance is key! 

Take a look at the following resources for tips and guidance to help you get your child through their fussy eating phase:

Six Sure Steps to raise a child who eats well

Practical 12-week ‘Back on Track’ eating plan

Reality Check Report

Dispelling the myths of fussy eating

References

  1. Great Ormond Street Hospital, 2009: http://www.gosh.nhs.uk/medical-information/general-health-advice/food-and-diet/fussy-eaters Accessed 5th March 2014.
  2. Carruth BR et al. J Am Diet Assoc 2004;104(1 Suppl 1):S57-S64.
  3. Data on file. Abbott Laboratories Ltd., 2013 (PaediaSure EU DTC study).