Why Your Child Isn't Eating

Boy not wanting to eat.

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Picky eating is one thing; a child or toddler who won't eat anything is something else again. Many a child refuses a meal because it doesn't pass the kid-approved taste test. But in most cases, the child caves once their growling stomach forces them back to the table or they are offered a preferred food.

Selective eating and occasional dips in appetite are common and normal. But refusing to eat for long periods of time is not. Children usually get hungry every few hours. If your child won't eat, it may be a sign of an underlying medical problem, not a sign of a parent-child power struggle. 

This article explores the most common reasons that young children and toddlers refuse to eat. It also offers ideas to encourage positive eating habits.

Selective Eating

Who is better than a toddler at keeping parents on their toes? You assume they're going to favor sweets (and you're right), but why do they put up a fight over a dish of broccoli that they love calling "tiny trees"? Call it selective eating, and chalk it up to toddlerhood.

Preference for Sweets

Assuming you're trying to expose your toddler to a wide range of foods, it may help to know you face an uphill battle. And it has everything to do with biology, not your cooking.

Without any prodding, babies are born with a sweet tooth. This means they prefer sweet flavors, which conveniently attracts them to breast milk. Their preference for sweets is even keener than that of adults and doesn't begin to decline until adolescence. Babies must learn to like savory flavors.

Toddlers learn to eat by copying their parents and siblings. So if you and other children are eating an array of food, your toddler is more likely to mirror your behavior.

Fear of New Foods

Sometime during their second year, many toddlers develop a fear of trying new food. This is called neophobia, and it is the most common reason toddlers refuse to eat. Neophobia is stronger in some toddlers than others, but most of them eventually outgrow it.

It takes patience and persistence for parents to help kids overcome this reaction. You can help your toddler by exposing them to new foods regularly, eating meals together, and showing them that new foods are safe to eat and not at all frightening.

Children may need to be exposed to new foods many times before tasting them. In the meantime, don't try forcing your child to taste these foods. Toddlers are more likely to dig in once the foods become familiar and they feel they are missing out by not tasting them.

Sensory Issues

Some children make food decisions based on the information they gather from their senses. They may reject a food based on its texture, how it smells, looks, and moves, what color it is, or some combination of these qualities.

The best response is to let the toddler explore (or play with) their food, says registered dietitian Willow Jarosh, MS, RD, who helps families navigate these issues in her New York City practice.

"Parents sometimes forget that while they've been eating and selecting foods their entire lives, food is an entirely new experience for toddlers," she says. "So when they explore or play with their food to see how it feels or how it moves, they're learning about it. And that's positive."

For this reason, Jarosh isn't keen on the term "picky eater" for any child or toddler. "I like to think of it as what they prefer to eat," she says. "They're developing preferences, just like adults."

Appetite Loss

Toddlers may not eat because they're not hungry—or because they see or smell something that causes them to lose their appetite.

Children are known for having good interoception skills—or the ability to understand and feel the sensations in their own body. So if your toddler won't eat and insists they aren't hungry, let it go. As they go through growth spurts and days of varying activity, they'll let you know when they need a fill-up.

Some toddlers drink a lot of milk or juice and then are not hungry at mealtime. Limiting between-meal drinks to water can help with this issue.

Learning how to manage a toddler's appetite can take some doing. Take your first cue from portion size. If they regularly leave food behind, try cutting back on how much you offer them. Or let them serve themselves. Toddlers usually get hungry every few hours. So a small snack a few hours before a meal should mean they're hungry, not starving, when it's time to eat.

Taste

Add another challenge to your uphill feeding battle: Children can have twice as many taste buds as adults (or about 10,000). This means their sense of taste is much more sensitive, especially to strong or bitter foods (like vegetables).

To break down a toddler's resistance, do what you can to make their food look as appealing or fun as possible. Cutting food into cookie cutter shapes or turning a plate of sliced vegetables into a cartoon scene may help.

Toddlers aren't capable of creating a balanced diet for themselves. Offer kid-friendly favorites, but also remind them that they're special enough to eat "big people's food," too.

Fatigue

Just like an adult, a child who won't eat may simply be too tired to go through the motions of having a meal. Look for signs like level of activity, how well they slept the night before, or whether they were happily distracted with a playmate for an explanation for tiredness.

If dinnertime fatigue becomes a regular occurrence, try making lunchtime your toddler's big meal of the day and prepare a lighter meal for dinner.

In the meantime, try to understand that a tired child is bound to be less receptive to food in general, much less a visually appealing side dish you've prepared in their honor, Jarosh says.

Good sleep plays a role in good health, especially among growing toddlers. Toddlers ages 1 to 2 need between 11 and 14 hours of sleep per day (including naps), while 3- to 5-year-olds require 10 to 13 hours per day.

Medical Issues

As you probably know from your own experience, you can lose your appetite if you feel ill. Toddlers are no different, though they may not always be able to tell you exactly what's bothering them.

Some medical conditions may cause a lack of appetite or a refusal to eat:

  • Constipation
  • Eosinophilic esophagitis, a build-up of a particular white blood cell in the esophagus (potentially due to food allergies/sensitivities or acid reflux), resulting in a swollen, raw, painful throat
  • Fever
  • Food sensitivity, such as celiac disease (a reaction to the protein gluten, found in wheat, barley, and rye)
  • Sore throat
  • Teething
  • Viral illness

Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder

Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) is an eating disorder in which a child limits the amount or types of food they eat. Since children with ARFID usually do not consume enough calories, they often experience growth and development issues.

At least 5% of children and adolescents are thought to deal with ARFID. Unlike some other eating disorders, children with ARFID don't have a distorted body image. They feel anxiety related to the food itself.

Causes of ARFID can include:

  • Lack of interest in food
  • Tendency to feel full quickly
  • Sensory food aversions, meaning a child eats enough food but limits their choices to only certain items
  • Stomach or gastrointestinal issues like celiac disease or inflammatory bowel disease
  • Trauma, such as choking on food themselves or seeing someone else choke

In addition to weight loss, growth issues, and anxiety around food, children with ARFID may also have less energy than other children their age.

What to Do When a Child Won't Eat

When a toddler who won't eat, it's common for parents to try to convince or pressure them. This can take many forms, including coaxing ("Please, please eat just a few more bites"), bribing ("Eat those two bites of vegetables and I'll give you two cookies"), or offering a reward ("Clean your plate and I'll take you to the water park tomorrow").

Many parents try all three negotiating methods, often with the best of intentions. Even when you know you shouldn't apply pressure, it can be difficult to resist—particularly if you're worried about a child staying strong and healthy.

"Bargaining for bites" usually doesn't work because it devolves into a battle of wills. Besides, it doesn't have a lasting effect, and it's exhausting, too.

Instead, keep serving your toddler a variety of foods, including new ones. You may have some setbacks, but you should score some victories, too. At the same time, try to put at least one type of food that you know your toddler enjoys on the table, Jarosh says.

"It's much more likely that they'll eat if they spot that one food they like," she explains. "It can entice them to try the other foods you're offering."

As hard as it might be, stay calm if your toddler turns up their nose or causes a fuss at mealtime. Remember that when they're hungry, they'll eat.

Your toddler must learn how to identify food by how it looks so they can develop their own preferences. Try to offer only a small amount of one new food at a time. Never hide it amid food you know your child likes (such as tucking a piece of asparagus underneath a mound of applesauce). You'll run the risk of your toddler rejecting both foods.

Encourage Positive Eating Habits

To instill positive eating habits in your child, set a good example by eating an array of foods yourself—and from all food groups. Eliminate distractions, such as TV and cellphones, during mealtimes.

Involve your toddler in meal planning. Show them pictures from recipe books and ask them to make menu selections for the week ahead. Explore new food choices together at the grocery store.

Serve snacks and meals about the same time each day. Give your toddler a five-minute warning before you sit down to eat so they don't have to make a mad dash to the table.

More than any other piece of advice Jarosh imparts to her clients, she emphasizes the value of making mealtime an enjoyable family time.

"This is a time when families can make a connection—when kids can talk about their day and share the high points as well as the low points," she said. "Creating a safe and collaborative place is so important—not only to what children eat but also to their overall health."

Summary

Dealing with a picky eater is different from dealing with a toddler who won't eat. Neophobia is a common reason why toddlers turn up their noses at food. They are more than wary of new food; they may even fear it. This form of food refusal usually fades with time, however.

A child who won't eat may be influenced by sensory issues, a lack of appetite, and different taste preferences. A child who is tired, feeling pressure to eat, or is experiencing medical issues may also shun food.

A Word From Verywell

Parents often worry when their toddler doesn't eat enough or eats only a limited number of foods. But small children learn to regulate their appetite to meet their growth needs from as early as a few weeks after birth. And they learn how to pick their favorite foods based on their own developing criteria.

Keep reminding yourself that this stage won't last forever. However, if your child is not eating anything at all, and the problem is ongoing, consult a healthcare provider. There may be an underlying issue that can be treated.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Do children go through phases when they won’t eat anything?

    It's common for kids to have phases where they eat a lot, and phases where they seem to be hardly consuming anything at all. Short periods of low appetite are common and normal. If the problem persists, check with a healthcare provider to see if there is an underlying medical issue.

  • How do you not get angry with a child who won’t eat?

    This is a hard one for parents, because it's easy to get angry when you've prepared a meal or a snack and your child won't eat it (or even throws a tantrum). It may help to remember that, as long as there is no medical condition affecting their eating habits, kids are good at regulating their appetite and they will eat when they need to.

  • What should you do if your child is losing weight from not eating?

    If your child is losing weight, talk to a healthcare provider. They can help determine why your child is losing weight, whether it is cause for concern, and how to respond.

  • Aren't children supposed to gain a lot of weight during the toddler years to stay healthy?

    It depends what you mean by "a lot." Babies generally double their birth weight by the time they're 6 months old and triple it by the time they're 1 year old. But every child is different. It's not uncommon for children to go several months without much weight gain after their first year.

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10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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