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What Causes a Toddler Not to Eat?

By Julie Christensen ; Updated June 13, 2017

Some toddlers approach foods with lusty enthusiasm, but most take a more cautious approach. In fact, picky eating is one of the most common concerns parents bring to pediatricians. Remember that your toddler is in good company and the phase usually ends within a year or two.

Changes in Growth and Development

The first 12 months of life are marked by rapid growth, but growth slows down between 18 months and 2 years. Your toddler's appetite probably wanes because he needs fewer calories to sustain this slower growth. Toddlers and preschoolers typically experience 2 or 3 growth spurts each year, when appetites increase again. As toddlers gain mobility, they often lose interest in eating. They are literally just too busy to stop for a meal. Toddlers control very little in their lives, but the foods they eat are one thing they can control. Many toddlers enjoy asserting their independence at mealtimes.

Focused on Favorites

Most toddlers go through a period when they prefer certain foods over others, and may even go on a food jag when they want to eat nothing but one food, such as cold cereal or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for several days. This is normal toddler behavior and usually doesn't indicate a problem. Toddlers prefer foods that are familiar and predictable. They may lack the oral motor development to eat whole pieces of food, such as a whole sandwich.

Calling a Truce

If you are having problems getting your toddler to eat, prepare at least one food your child likes at each meal, along with several other choices. Allow your toddler to choose what he'll eat and how much he'll eat. As long as you're offering nutritious options, your toddler will get adequate nutrition. Provide several healthy snacks during the day to make up for limited food intake during meals. Sliced fruit, cubes of cheese, whole-grain crackers and healthy dips, such as hummus, guacamole and smooth natural peanut butter, are kid-friendly options. Don't make meals a battle ground. Toddlers sometimes enjoy the negative attention that occurs when parents beg or try to coerce them into eating. Model good eating habits yourself and stay positive. Parents decide when and what to eat; toddlers decide whether and how much to eat.

Serious Concerns

Occasionally a toddler may not eat because of an underlying health condition, such as an ear infection, teething, or reflux. Stress or anxiety may also cause a reduced appetite. More rarely, young children may develop feeding disorders for a number of reasons. Consult your pediatrician if you suspect a medical reason for your child's picky eating.

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