Fussy eaters vs. resistant eaters

The toddler years are an exciting journey in which your child starts to develop their personality and a sense of independence. One way in which toddlers often demonstrate their growing independence is by choosing what they will and will not eat, and you may find your toddler refusing a food they used to love! While frustrating for parents, this is a typical stage of their development. Toddlers may also experience heightened levels of neophobia (fear of anything new or unfamiliar), which peaks around 18 months old. Eating difficulties and fussiness can be challenging and stressful for parents, so we are going to break them down for you!

Did you know that the toddler years are a period of rapid physical, cognitive, social and emotional development? We have increasing evidence to suggest that improved nutrition and an adequate diet can result in optimal brain function. Rapid brain development occurs within the first 24 months of life, with the brain reaching approximately 80% of its total weight by the age of two – fascinating! So, if you are worried about your child’s intake, check in with your General Practitioner or child and family health nurse.

What can you expect your child’s dietary intake to look like?

At toddler age, we generally expect that children are eating regular family-style meals around the table, in addition to snacks throughout the day. This regime will help them to consume a range of different foods from all food groups. To learn more about the different food groups and for healthy meal and snack ideas for your little one, have a look at our Tiny Tummies recipe booklet.

While full cream milk continues to be a valuable source of nutrition, this should be limited to 500mL per day, so as not to interfere with their appetite for other foods. At this stage children should be learning to drink from a cup instead of a bottle.

So, what if your child’s dietary intake does not look like that?

Not every toddler is an enthusiastic eater, and some toddlers like to show their independence through being fussy with their food. 

What is fussy eating?

Fussy eating, also known as picky eating, occurs in approximately 24-45% of typically developing children. A Canadian study assessed the eating habits of 1498 children at ages 2.5, 3.5 and 4.5 years. They found that 30% of children reported picky eating at one of the three ages assessed, up to 17% of children reported picky eating at any one point and 5.5% at every time point. So, if your child is showing signs of picky eating, know you are not alone!

The development of fussy eating may be influenced by a variety of factors such as increased pressure to eat, personality traits, parental practices (or feeding styles) and social influence. Other factors may also include delayed introduction of solids after 6 months and late introduction of chewy foods.

Many parents who have fussy eaters worry about their growth and development. A small amount of research reports that fussy eating may result in higher energy intake and an increased intake of energy-dense, nutrient poor foods (think cakes, chocolate and chips). However, the majority of evidence suggests that fussy eating is more likely to result in an overall reduction of food intake and a lack of variety and nutrients.

We know that fussy eating can often be an expression of independence which is consistent with developmental stage. However, when coupled with the physical limitations of a small stomach size and small appetite, regardless of independent eating choices, it can be challenging for some toddlers to eat a nutritionally adequate diet.

What is resistant eating?

We now have a pretty good idea of what fussy or picky eating is, so let’s delve into resistant eating. Resistant eating is generally more severe and restrictive than just regular fussy eating. It may result in significantly lower weight, reliance on supplementation and may be impacting your child’s regular functioning, particularly in social situations.

Often resistant eating occurs along with contributing factors, such as immature or delayed development of oral-motor skills, sensory processing challenges, gastrointestinal factors or even medical issues which can compromise the child’s ability to accept newly presented foods into their diet.

How will I know if my child is a fussy eater or a resistant eater?

Knowing whether your child is a fussy eater or resistant eater is important to manage your child’s food intake.

Key features to note if your child is a fussy eater:

  • Fussy eaters function well in social situations that involve foods, meaning they generally won’t experience anxiety in these situations especially if there is food they enjoy.
  • Fussy eaters are driven by preference rather than fear.
  • Fussy eaters are interested and happy in eating foods they enjoy.
  • Your child will likely grow out of this fussy eating phase; however it may last up to a couple of years.

Resistant eating is generally more complicated and might be characterised by some or all of the following characteristics:

  • Accepting only 10-15 foods or fewer.
  • Limiting or refusing foods by food groups, such as avoiding fruit all together.
  • Anxiousness or tantrums when new foods are presented to them. This may also include gagging or vomiting.
  • Experiencing food jags, which is where the same food needs to be present in the same form at each meal, such as boiled potatoes.
  • They may also be diagnosed with a developmental delay.

For more information on characteristics of fussy eating versus resistant eating, click here.

What can we do?

Fussy eating and resistant eating can be stressful for both parents and children. Fussy eating can be targeted by implementing a variety of simple strategies, such as:

  • Being a good food role model for your child.
  • Making mealtimes happy and calm.
  • Limiting all distractions.
  • Getting your child involved with food preparation.
  • Learning how and when to offer new foods so that you are not overwhelming your toddler.

For more strategies to combat fussy eating, have a read of our top tips for fussy eating in toddlers.

If you suspect your child might have extreme fussy eating or resistant eating behaviours, it is important to treat the underlying anxiety early, so please check in with your General Practitioner or Accredited Practising Dietitian for further advice.

Article written by Accredited Practising Dietitian, Kaylee Slater

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