Your child won’t eat or maybe he just isn’t consuming enough calories. You’ve been told your child has ‘Failure to Thrive.’ Your child has fallen off the growth curve. These are common experiences that countless familiar share, and the familial impact can be significant. For example, research has found that when a child’s weight becomes more stable, a mother’s affect and behavior become more positive (i.e. less depression; Pridham et al, 2001).
Anxiety and stress can quickly rise and impact the entire family unit when a child is having feeding difficulties. Feeding problems are often the cause of environmental difficulties. Stress, anxiety, depression, and even marital difficulties, often increase during feeding difficulties. Not only should the stress level of the child be monitored but also the family level. As stress increases, appetite decreases and positive learning opportunities are hindered. Children notice the emotions and behaviors of their caregivers, and they may in turn become stressed due to their caregivers’ stress. Hiccups and yawning are a sign of physiological distress in young children and signals that adrenaline is high. Higher levels of parental pressure are associated with lower levels of child intake and weight and higher ratings of child ‘pickiness.’ So what can you do to manage the stress? Check out the tips below.
Tips for reducing mealtime stress:
Take your cues from your child. Listen to your child. If your child appears stressed, lower your demands. Ask for only one thing at a time. For example, if your goal is for your child to eat more calories, don’t expect him to add a new food at the same time.
Social Modeling is a key component of the eating experience. Children learn about eating by observing others receiving consequences for their actions. Children pay more attention to facial expressions and vocal tone of others as opposed to actual words. For example, if you take a bite of peas and state, “This is yummy!” while your facial expressions say otherwise, you are not going to fool your child. Children are more likely to eat a food if the adult is eating the SAME food. Involve children in all aspects of the prep and meal time as developmentally and socially appropriate.
Provide guidelines and boundaries to help your child succeed. Minimize distractions at mealtime by turning the television off and keeping toys away from the table. Set clear rules for meals (e.g., use utensils, sit at table for all meals, try at least one bite). Give your child choices in order to increase the sense of control and independence, e.g., If you want them to eat a vegetable, offer carrots or broccoli.
Be okay with getting messy. Playing with food may help decrease anxiety and provide learning opportunities for better understanding the food. Allow your child to attempt self-feeding as much as possible, even it means making a mess.
Focus on the positive. Praise your child for engaging in appropriate behavior. Don’t forget to praise the little things, such as touching or examining a new food. Minimize reactions to negative behaviors, which may provide attention that increases the behavior. Attempt to redirect behaviors and end the meal on a positive note.