Why might a toddler have a drop in appetite?

Given that Baby’s appetite has probably been rapidly increasing through their entire life up to this point, it can be a bit nerve-wracking to find one day that their appetite is shrinking. This is actually very common as Baby gets nearer to their first birthday, but why does it happen?

This appetite drop happens because, at this point, Baby’s growth starts to slow down. Just after they were born, growth was a race, and eating was crucial for fueling their way around the track. Now that their growth is shifting closer to the tortoise end of the tortoise-hare spectrum, they are going to start to need less of that fuel, and their appetite at the dinner table may drop accordingly. That can be tricky, because it’s also around the time that many children really start to sit at the dinner table, and be part of family meals, which means it’s a time of establishing habits, and it’s important that the habits that get established aren’t power struggles over food.

Shorter-term decreases in appetite might also happen when children are teething or sick, but these generally pass about as quickly as the illness or tooth.

Tower of power

Parent-child food power struggles don’t start because anyone enjoys fighting. In fact, they generally start from a place of love and concern. It’s worrying to watch your once-eager eater pick at their favorite food, and decide that they are done after a bite or two. Sometimes a toddler’s eating habits may seem like they can’t possibly be getting enough food. Most of the time, though, toddlers have a pretty good idea of what they need, nutritionally, and when they’re offered a healthy and varied diet on a regular basis, they tend to get the right balance of what they need over a little time. Just to make sure everything is on-track, though, there are a few different things you can do to encourage a healthy appetite at mealtime.

  • To make sure Baby isn’t filling up on liquid, you can try only offering water between meals (after 6 months), and only offering milk or juice later on in the meal. Filling up on milk or juice, both of which are very low in iron, has been linked to anemia. Juice is also often high in sugar in comparison to the nutrients it offers, and should only be offered on a limited basis.
  • Just because Baby is getting to the point where they can sit at the table with the grown-ups, that doesn’t mean they're ready for adult-sized portions. Large portions can look intimidating to toddlers. Instead, try offering small amounts, and then giving them more when and if they want more. A very rough rule of thumb says that a good serving size for toddlers is about a tablespoon per year of age.
  • Appetite can vary widely through the toddler years, and often grows during Baby’s growth spurts, then shrinks again when their growth slows. As long as they seem healthy, and they are developing normally, there’s generally nothing to worry about, even if their appetite seems to grow and shrink.
  • If you’re really concerned about the balance of nutrients Baby is getting, it can help to keep a food journal mapping out what Baby eats when. It can help map the times of day when they are hungriest, or just prove that they really do get a good combination of nutrients over time. If the food journal shows that, like you suspected, Baby maybe isn’t getting quite enough greens, you can respond by quietly offering them to them a bit more often.
  • When children are going through moods where fruits and vegetables don’t sound so tasty, it can help to present fruits and veggies in less expected ways, like as mashes, vegetable chips, or from squeeze pouches.

When to actually worry

While a drop in appetite is expected and normal at this age, some worries over how little a child is eating can be reasonable. If your child is losing weight, or isn’t seeing any growth or weight gain for a few months in a row, or they seem pale, listless, or low-energy, along with not eating, or vomits frequently, it may be time to check in with the doctor to make sure that everything is still on-track.

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