Picky-eating tot or does he fear new foods?

Refusing his food doesn’t always mean your tot is a picky eater, he might be afraid to taste something new…

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First-time mum Cassandra Lee, 35, couldn’t be more excited when her son Tristan turned 6 months ― he’d be starting on solids! Armed with the latest weaning recipes scoured from websites and cookbooks, she painstakingly prepared every one of his meals from scratch.

Tristan’s daily diet was fit for a king ― strawberry, prune and mango purée for breakfast, baby pasta in pumpkin sauce for lunch and salmon for dinner. Lee recalls, “He would lap everything up and that made me even more eager to try all kinds of recipes…it was such a fun time.”

But it all came to an abrupt end a few weeks after Tristan turned 12 months. He started refusing to eat his usual favourites, choosing instead to open his mouth only for bland staples like bread and plain white rice.

“I tried all kinds of tactics to get him to try new foods, going to the extent of cooking with expensive ingredients like ricotta cheese and quinoa ― even then, he wouldn’t budge,” Lee laments. “Tristan just turned 2 and although it’s gotten slightly better, the ‘battle’ is still ongoing and it’s driving me nuts.”

Food refusal often rears its ugly head at around 12 or 13 months when your kiddo is old enough to assert his independence.

Food refusal often rears its ugly head at around 12 or 13 months when your kiddo is old enough to assert his independence. He wants to decide what he wants to eat, when he wants to eat it and how he want to go about doing so. If he doesn’t get his way, junior would rather dig his heels in and not eat. But this doesn’t necessarily mean your little one is fussy feeder or doesn’t like food, it could actually be a case of food neophobia ― a fear of trying a new food, experts say.

Force-feeding your little one could turn mealtimes into a battle zone. Instead, you can help him get back on track by understanding why your once voracious eater is suddenly averse to new tastes.

To learn more about this misunderstood issue, SmartParents speaks to four feeding experts at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH): Senior occupational therapists Donabel Baskaran and Jo Chen, as well as senior speech therapists Maria Concepcion and Stacy Tan.

Why is refusal of food more common in some toddlers than others?
KKH: Feeding is a complex activity that involves many different skills. Some toddlers may be more sensitive to certain tastes and textures of foods presented. This could have an impact on their acceptance of new types of food. Toddlers with a history of negative associations to feeding ― such as vomiting or force-feeding ― may also be more cautious about trying new food. Late introduction of a variety of tastes and textures during the weaning period may also cause a child to refuse new food.

Click through to get to the bottom of food neophobia…

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How different is picky eating from food neophobia?
KKH: Food neophobia is a fear of eating or trying new foods. Children with food neophobia will be able to accept new types of food after repeated exposure. Picky eaters may have difficulty in accepting familiar and unfamiliar food even after being repeatedly exposed to the sight, smell and taste of the food. For example, a child with neophobia may be able to touch and taste broccoli after being exposed to it for about 20 times. However, a picky eater will continue to exhibit food refusal. With continued exposure and by providing a supportive feeding environment, food neophobia will diminish over time. It should be noted that food neophobia may also be experienced by adults.

Are there extreme cases of food neophobia?
KKH: Yes. In a less extreme case, a child is able to allow new food to be placed on his or her plate and may even touch and taste it with positive reinforcements. In a more extreme case, the child refuses to touch and may not even want to look at the new food. They may react by crying, running away or even throwing a tantrum.

“Food neophobia is a fear of eating or trying new foods. Children with food neophobia will be able to accept new foods after repeated exposure.”

In what ways can a parent exacerbate the food neophobia situation?
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KH: Force-feeding or avoidance of providing new kinds of food to children may exacerbate their food refusal behaviour. By forcing children to eat new food, parents may reinforce their child’s negative perceptions of the food and result in their child displaying maladaptive behaviour [such as by throwing tantrums or being aggressive].

Avoidance and over-catering to children’s food preferences are not encouraged as children will not learn to acquire coping strategies to accept new foods.

Distractions such as watching videos on electronic devices or toys during mealtimes will reduce the opportunities for children to learn about mealtime behaviours and food properties as his or her attention will be focused on the distractions used.

In order for a child to feel safe to try new foods, parents should share clear expectations surrounding food with their child. Hiding of challenging foods within accepted foods may cause a child to distrust his or her parents as the child can never be sure whether the next mouthful will contain something that is challenging. The feeding environment may become stressful for the child, hence affecting and reducing appetite, and increasing maladaptive behaviour.

How do you help your food neophobic child? Read on…

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When does food neophobia turn into a cause for concern?
KKH: When your child’s nutritional status is compromised. Parents may want to consider seeking medical help if their child:

  • Experiences weight loss.
  • Accepts less than 20 types of food across different food groups.
  • Demonstrates maladaptive behaviour at every meal.
  • Has prolonged mealtime duration of more than an hour for each meal.
  • Demonstrates high anxiety over and during mealtimes, impacting the parent-child relationship.

“Promoting a positive feeding environment is key to encouraging children to try new food.”

What advice can you give parents struggling with a food neophobic child?
KKH: Promoting a positive feeding environment is key to encouraging children to try new food. There are many ways for parents to promote this, such as involving your child in food preparation activities like making sandwiches, washing fruits and vegetables or baking.

Establishing family mealtimes is a good opportunity for parents to model positive feeding behaviour such as staying seated during the meal and trying new types of food.

Parents can also focus on describing the food properties and encouraging their child to interact with the food by using cutlery. Use of positive words and praises can often motivate the child as well. Keeping offering the same food in small amounts on separate occasions. It’s normal for the child to initially reject trying it.

KKH EXPERTS Donabel Baskaran, senior occupational therapist, Occupational Therapy Service; Jo Chen, senior occupational therapist, Occupational Therapy Service; Maria Socorro Tablatin Concepcion, senior speech therapist, Speech Language Therapy Service; Stacy Tan, senior speech therapist, Speech Language Therapy Service

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