Parental concern is the fate of all parents. When a child has a poor appetite or refuses to eat, it's normal to be concerned. But to what degree?
Children, appetite and nutrition
Most parents want their children to eat healthy, so they can develop and stay healthy. Whether your child is an infant, a baby, a child or an adolescent, it's normal to be concerned when you notice significant changes in their appetite and eating habits.
A child's appetite can vary considerably from one day to the next or even from hour to hour! Don't be surprised if your little voracious eater suddenly turns up their nose on a favourite food. As you know, children mostly function by instinct. They are often highly tuned to what they feel, and this is also true for hunger and satiation.
Another particularity is that children often have a preference for very sweet foods that are deemed less healthy by parents. Moreover, children have a natural aversion to new foods. Does your child tend to devour cake, but shows little interest for the sauteed squash and tofu you've lovingly prepared? Not surprising! Although it is your responsibility to make your little one discover the virtues of a healthy diet, give yourselves some time. Whatever their age, you won't obtain the results you are hoping for by lecturing or putting pressure on them.
The causes of poor appetite
It can be perfectly normal for a child to be less hungry in certain situations, for example if they:
- are sick (cold, flu, ear infection, etc.)
- are teething
- are not in a growth spurt
- take certain medications
Medication is sometimes responsible for a loss of appetite in children or adolescents, as it can be a side effect. For instance, it is known that psychostimulants used to treat attention deficit with hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can decrease appetite and lead to weight loss. Speak to your pharmacist for additional information about it.
Other possible reasons for a refusal to eat
At certain stages of children's development, they learn to assert themselves and to become more autonomous. For example, at about two years of age, they might make faces accompanied by a resounding "NO!". Nothing could be more normal. Don't worry: the body will send the right messages when they need energy to play, discover, and learn. It's useless to insist; this will only lead to more resistance.
At adolescence, we often see the extremes: a teen eats like a horse or like a bird, sometimes even alternately! The quest to be thin can also be an issue and influence eating habits at this age. There usually isn't cause for alarm. However, some adolescents, particularly girls, can develop an eating disorder. If your teen refuses to eat, loses weight or adopts peculiar eating habits, speak to them about it. Don't hesitate to consult a professional if you think it is appropriate.
A few day-to-day tips
- Serve meals at regular hours.
- Provide healthy snacks between meals.
- Avoid beverages that are very sweet or high in calories, and that reduce appetite. Limit their intake of fruit juice, for example. Soft drinks have no nutritional value and are not a good choice. Water and milk remain the best options.
- Encourage your child to eat family meals. Don't prepare special foods just for them. Otherwise, you will soon find yourself caught in a never-ending cycle.
- Don't give in to blackmail and negotiation.
- Never force your child to eat, and don't punish them. Offer encouragement and congratulations if they eat well or try new foods. Positive reinforcement offers better results than a punitive or negative approach.
- When it comes time to eat, forbid distractions.
- During meals, create an atmosphere that is conducive to joy and interactions.
- Lead by example. If they see you eating healthy and with a positive attitude, they will do the same.
- Follow the recommendations of the Canada Food Guide.
If you are concerned about your child's nutrition, speak to a healthcare professional, who will be able to help you get a clear idea, put things into perspective or find solutions if necessary. Remember that your pharmacist is always available to talk about your children's health or your own!