Help! My little one won’t eat anything!

Even the heartiest-eating toddler usually goes through at least one or two stages of slightly pickier eating, but some toddlers take these stages to whole new levels, leaving their concerned parents or caregivers worrying that they won’t eat anything. This is normal, too, since the toddler years are prime limit-testing times for tots who want to know the boundaries of their worlds. Periods of pickier eating can also be related to toddlers’ naturally small appetites, a desire for greater control over their lives, and a lack of interest in food in general, when the rest of the world is so interesting.

For toddlers who seem like they just won’t eat anything, the type of “not eating” generally falls into one of a few different categories.

Refusing to eat “at mealtime”

Toddlers who feel more comfortable “grazing” through the day, rather than letting hunger build up till mealtime, then eating till they’re full are great at making their parents and caregivers worry. After all, how can they possibly be getting enough to eat when they only took two bite of their dinner?

The truth is that toddlers are very good at getting the nutrients they need here and there, and have a much harder time having big appetites three times a day for strict mealtimes. Their tummies are small enough that two or three snack times a day are usually still a regular part of their lives – and still should be. Toddlers who don’t eat too much at mealtime are generally still getting the nutrients they need, just distributed more evenly throughout the day. These toddlers can still benefit from eating meals with the rest of the family, and, in fact, a lowering-of-expectations about how much they’ll actually eat during meals can help to keep family mealtimes lower-stress.

Not clearing their plate

This is one of those problems that generally seems like more of a problem to parents than it does to either toddlers or their healthcare providers. This is because toddlers routinely have very small appetites in the years after their first birthdays. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against asking toddlers to clear their plates, since this can teach tots to ignore their own bodies’ hunger cues.

It can be hard for toddlers’ parents to believe that toddlers can actually get all the nutrition they need just from a few bites here or there, but the truth is, after the first year of life, toddlers’ growth rates go way down, and they need a lot less food. As long as they’re being offered healthy foods, so that those few bites here or there are getting them nutrients and energy, letting toddlers set the pace for how much they eat is generally the best way to encourage healthy eating patterns in the future.

Parents can encourage a little more eating at mealtimes, and can make sure toddlers aren’t filling up on things that won’t get them the varied diet they need by making sure that snack times are as balanced and varied as meals, including fruits, vegetables, and protein sources, instead of just crackers or other simple, starchy foods, and by limiting liquids, especially in the time just before a meal. Toddlers over the age of one shouldn’t be drinking more than two cups of milk a day, since tots who fill up on milk run the risk of iron deficiency, if the milk takes the place of foods they might otherwise be eating, but milk isn’t the only culprit. Even 100% juice should be a very limited part of a toddler’s diet, since too much juice can get in the way of a toddler’s hunger for more nutritious food, and even too much water can give toddlers the feeling of being full, if they have too much just before a meal.

Obviously testing your limits

If Baby is trying to figure out where your limits are, this is a great opportunity to show them. If you’re not willing to make a separate meal for them to-order every night, don’t give them the impression that you will. If sweets and other less-healthy options are “sometimes” foods in your kitchen, let them know that they’re going to stay a special treat, and won’t be offered just because they isn’t in the mood to eat their dinner.

Toddlers may not like seeing their parents or caregivers stand their ground about food, but they won’t let themselves starve. Baby may not eat as much as you’d wish they would, but they'll eat when they get hungry, just as soon as they're assured themself that they won’t get something tastier if they hold out a little longer. If you’ve ended up giving them less healthy snacks to break a hunger strike in the past, it may take longer to convince them that that’s not going to happen this time.

Taking it too far can backfire, but offering part of previous meals during snacktime can help cement the fact that you won’t be letting them get out of eating healthy, varied foods just by refusing them until a preferred food is offered.

Not eating anything. Ever.

Most parents who say this don’t mean it literally – instead they mean “will only eat tiny nibbles that can’t be enough to keep them fed,” or “will only eat this one specific, unhealthy snack that I’m trying not to give them, but they won’t eat anything else, so I end up giving in,” or some other variation on one of the situations above. For the rare few tots who really will not eat anything, though, the key is to figure out the root of the problem.

If it’s just a day or two, not eating isn’t going to start to affect their weight yet, so if you’re pretty sure this is an extension of a power struggle, or picky eating, instead of any kind of physical or medical problem, it’s safe to let it go for a day or two, so that they can decide they're ready to eat again on their own. In the meantime, continue to casually offer them a variety of healthy foods at every meal. Eventually, they will probably bite.

If they continue to not eat anything at all for three or four days, it may be time to call their doctor. This is also true if they start to lose weight, or seems sick in any other way. It’s also a good idea to call their doctor sooner if, instead of pushing boundaries or engaging in a power struggle with you, you get the sense that eating may be uncomfortable or difficult for them. A pediatrician can evaluate them for any underlying medical issues that might lead to feeding problems, and may be able to offer some tips specific to Baby’s needs.

  • Maureen M. Black, Kristen M. Hurley. “Helping Children Develop Healthy Eating Habits.” Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development. CEECD, SKC-ECD. September 2013. Retrieved July 20 2017.
  • Rebecca Parlakian, Claire Lerner. “Promoting Healthy Eating Habits Right From The Start.” naeyc. National Association for the Education of Young Children, May 2007. Retrieved July 20 2017.
  • Jessica Mills. My Mother Wears Combat Boots: A Parenting Guide for the Rest of Us. AK Press. Oakland, CA. Print.
  • Wendy  Sue Swanson. “No More ‘Clean Plate Club.’” Healthy Children. American Academy of Pediatrics, November 21 2015. Retrieved July 20 2017.
  • “Teaching Toddlers Good Food Habits.” UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital. University of California San Francisco. Retrieved July 20 2017.
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