Parents accustomed to babies who eat virtually anything might be dismayed when their babies turn into toddlers who eat almost nothing. A toddler’s growing need for autonomy, in addition to her slowing rate of growth, can lead to a definite slump in her appetite. Since toddlers’ appetites vary, they might eat a lot one day and very little the next. They might also refuse old favorites simply because they can do so—food is one area in which they can assert their blossoming independence.
Instead of doubling or tripling their weight like they did as babies, toddlers often grow only 2 to 3 inches and gain 4 lbs. in their third year, according to Dr. Steven Dowshen, the Chief Medical Editor of the KidsHealth by Nemours website. If a doctor determines that a child’s growth is on track—and he appears happy and active—his appetite loss is probably not due to illness or malnutrition.
Drinking too much milk or juice can cause a child’s appetite to appear diminished at mealtimes, as can excessive snacking too close to meal times. The Mayo Clinic advises limiting beverages before a toddler's meals and serving solid foods before giving her milk at the table. Regular snack times should be maintained and portions should be controlled to avoid decreasing her appetite for regular meals.
Although the molars that come in during the toddler years are larger than the middle teeth that appeared during their first year of life, toddler teething rarely appears to cause significant pain or other symptoms, such as crankiness or loss of appetite, according to Laura Grunbaum, a pediatrician in San Leandro, California. A toddler's waning appetite may be the result of an infection or other illness, especially if fever, vomiting or diarrhea accompanies her loss of appetite.
Instead of worrying about a child’s loss of appetite, parents can encourage healthy eating and help her build positive attitudes about food. Parents should trust their child’s appetite to determine how much she needs to eat—never force her to eat everything on her plate. A toddler should eat a a variety of age-appropriate, healthy foods including fruits and vegetables, lean meats, poultry and seafood and whole grains. The Mayo Clinic cautions against using food as a reward or punishment—this can lead to long-term power struggles and unhealthy attitudes about food.
Picky eating can make toddlers especially susceptible to developing iron-deficiency anemia, a condition caused by inadequate amounts of iron. Without iron, a child’s body cannot make red blood cells—the cells that carry oxygen throughout his body. If a toddler exhibits pale skin, fatigue and weakness, irritability and dizziness along with his loss of appetite, a doctor should examine him. He can administer a test for anemia and prescribe dietary changes or medications to ensure the toddler gets enough iron.