When Mandy kindly invited me to write a guest post for her blog, I thought about some of the most common questions that I get asked by parents. “How can I get my child to eat better”, “Is my child’s eating normal”… It occured to me though, that underneath many of these concerns is a more fundamental question: “Do I need help?”
Like any area of parenting, some things are black and white, and in the nebulous regions in between, lies a lot of grey. Let’s start with the black and white.
· If there are concerns with your child’s weight or growth, you need support from a professional.
As a feeding consultant, I won’t work with a family until the child has had their weight and growth checked. This is because problems in this area are a very important indicator of underlying problems and more complex challenges than straightforward picky eating. You can read more about getting your child’s weight and growth checked here.
The next thing to think about is how everybody feels. If your child’s weight and growth is fine and they are healthy, the chances are they are doing okay. I am a great believer in ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. If you are happy with how mealtimes are in your house and happy with what you are eating as a family, actually, I don’t think that trying new ways of doing things would be very successful. This might sound negative, but as a therapist I know only too well that change is only possible when someone really wants it.
· Are mealtimes tough for me?
It could be that your child is happy at mealtimes because they are only being offered foods that they will happily accept; maybe they are allowed to fill up on snacks or alternatives so from their perspective, mealtimes are great.
However, if you are feeling anxious, sad, angry, guilty or frustrated about your child’s diet (or maybe all or the above!) maybe it’s time to make some changes.
· Are mealtimes tough for my child?
Maybe you are used to meals being tricky; take a step back and assess how your child is experiencing eating. Are they frequently upset and negative about the food you offer? Are they very demanding, asking for certain foods not to touch, etc? Most importantly of all, what’s the atmosphere like at the table? Does your child frequently get upset or angry while eating? It’s not alright for a child to experience negative emotions every time they eat.
· What is the focus of our meals?
This is really telling and it is one of the main things I look out for when I carry out meal observations with families of fussy eaters. If the meal is all about what your child is eating (or not), chances are, you need help. Ask yourself whether your child’s eating dominates mealtimes. If it does, you can take steps to make things better.
· Is this more than a phase?
I help parents understand that picky eating is a developmentally normal phase but this phrase ‘just a phase’ can be bandied about a little too much – children can get stuck with unhealthy eating behaviours because of the reactions they get to them. For me, what’s important is not how long you have been experiencing problems, but how you experience them and how much they impact on your family. Even if it is ‘just a phase’ there is nothing wrong with learning how best to weather this particular storm.
If you recognise your family in any of these descriptions, you are probably wondering what help will look like and where to find it. If you are in the US, there are many feeding professionals who are equipped to help parents of picky eaters. Often, a speech and language pathologist will be able to support you.
In the UK, it’s a little harder to get expert help – however, every family with a child under five will have a named Health Visitor and they are often a great place to start with food and feeding problems and will know where to signpost you to if they cannot help you. If your child is older, you can see your GP.
Look out for picky eating workshops in your area – read books and articles on the internet. Here are a few great sites that I recommend as a good starting point:
Most of all, remember that asking for help is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength.
Jo Cormack is a therapist, feeding consultant and mum of three; she specialises in preventing and solving picky eating in children. As well as face-to-face consultancy work in the UK, Jo helps families all over the world via Skype. She is the author of War and Peas, a book for parents of picky eaters about how to give children a positive relationship with food by understanding the emotional, psychological and behavioural aspects of picky eating. Find out more about Jo's work at emotionallyawarefeeding.com and follow her on twitter (@Jo_Cormack ).