Understanding Your Child's Appetite

Many parents worry when a child who ate ravenously as a baby becomes uninterested in food and seems to eat very little. This often happens around the second birthday, when the child's growth rate slows. Parents are concerned that their child is not getting enough nutrition. There may be days when a toddler eats only a few mouthfuls, or insists on eating only certain foods.

It is normal for a toddler's appetite to fluctuate from day to day and week to week. Babies' bodies are growing rapidly, and they burn lots of energy as they learn to crawl and walk. As a baby grows into a toddler, he or she no longer requires as many calories. A toddler is distracted by the world around him, and is also learning to assert his independence by challenging adults and saying no. Your toddler might eat next to nothing one day and two big meals the next. 

While you might feel your child is not getting the necessary nutrition on one day, if you look at what he or she eats over the period of a week, you will probably find a well-balanced diet. As long as your child is active, healthy, and happy, he or she is probably getting enough nourishment.

A healthy child knows when he is hungry and when he is full. Since eating habits are formed early in life, it is important for parents to respect a child's appetite and allow the child to decide when he or she has had enough to eat.

There are several reasons why your child might have a poor appetite. Minor illnesses like colds and ear infections temporarily suppress appetite. Drinking quantities of milk or sweet juice, or eating too many snacks can make a child feel too full to eat at mealtimes. Some children sense their parents' anxiety over what they eat, and turn mealtimes into a power game.

Here are some tips for forming healthy eating habits:

  • Children learn from your example. Eat together and let them see you enjoying healthy foods.
  • Remember how small a child's stomach is. Toddler portions are 1/4 to 1/2 of a normal adult portion. Start with a small serving and give more when the child asks for it.
  • Offer small healthy snacks between meals.
  • Try to schedule mealtimes around the same time each day. Let your child prepare by telling them 15 minutes before a meal is being served.
  • Do not force a child to eat or to empty his plate. Ask your child to stay at the table with you even if he or she does not eat.
  • Do not use sweet desserts as rewards for eating dinner or for good behavior. Instead, incorporate desserts in your regular meal plan two or three times a week, or offer fruit.
  • Turn off video games and television and minimize distractions during mealtimes. Relax and give your full attention to your family during mealtimes.
  • Encourage your child to try new foods, even when they are rejected repeatedly. Studies have shown that it can take up to 15 tries before a child agrees to taste a new food.

Consult your family doctor if you are worried that your child is not getting enough nutrition, if you feel a persistent lack of appetite is due to illness, or if your child's picky eating habits make it difficult to eat with others. . 

For more information about nutrition and the eating habits of young children:

Appetite Slump in Toddlers (www.aboutkidshealth.ca/En/HealthAZ/HealthandWellness/Nutrition/Pages/Appetite-Slump-in-Toddlers.aspx)

Children's nutrition: 10 tips for picky eaters (www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/childrens-health/in-depth/childrens-health/art-20044948)

Is My Toddler Eating Enough?


Toddler Eating Habits: A Few Golden Rules 


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