What to do if your baby is refusing to eat!

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Are you battling with a baby that constantly pushes away the spoon? Often babies get off to a great start with weaning and then suddenly they don’t want to eat, and it can be a worry!

In this blog I’ll take you through some of the common reasons why babies refuse to eat and what you can do to help overcome this.

What to do if your baby is refusing to eat! by Sarah Almond Bushell - The Children's Nutritionist

Why do babies refuse to eat?

Let’s start by going through the reasons why babies refuse to eat. Some of them are a normal part of their development and others may be linked to feeling unwell. 

Taste and flavour perception

Babies are born with a preference for sweet tasting foods (primed to seek out breastmilk), and therefore bitter or sour flavours like green veggies may take a little more persuasion to eat over sweet foods like fruit.

Babies also have more taste buds than adults, which means that foods can taste different to them. 

Rejection of a food does not necessarily mean they don’t or won’t like it. They just need lots of time and experience with those unfamiliar foods. They almost have to learn to like them and this can last for several years. 

Growth slowing down

Between birth and their first birthday your baby goes through a massive growth spurt. Typically, they will triple their birth weight but this slows down quite significantly after 12 months. 

Therefore, if you have an older baby who is suddenly turned off their food, it is likely because their appetite has reduced in response to their lower nutritional requirements. This is completely normal and to be expected.  

Routine and milk feeds

Sometimes babies don’t eat well if they have milk and food too close together. Milk is very filling and so babies who love their feeds may just be too full up to have any desire to eat.

It’s also worth remembering that drinking milk is easy but eating food requires skill and so often babies will gravitate towards the easy option.

Once your baby is on three meals a day (usually at around 7 month) it’s good to stop feeding on demand and introduce a schedule leaving gaps of around 2.5 – 3 hours in between milk and food.

If you’re not sure how this looks or can’t work out how best to fit this around naps, I have baby routines available in my shop for 7-9 months, 10-12 months and 1-3 years. You will also get a sample meal plan and a portion size guide.

Tiredness

Is dinner the hardest meal of the day? Often parents tell me that their little ones do quite well at breakfast and lunch but dinner is a disaster. 

It may be tiredness that’s the issue here as it’s getting towards the end of the day. Remember I mentioned that babies often gravitate towards what’s easier? Well, eating food can be hard work so bear this in mind, and make dinner an easy meal.

A top tip is to make breakfast and lunch a little more substantial and that will take the pressure off dinner time.

What to do if your baby is refusing to eat! by Sarah Almond Bushell - The Children's Nutritionist

Why do babies reject both new foods and foods they previously liked?

Babies can be quite unpredictable. They might love a certain food one day and then spit it out the next. Be reassured that this is completely normal and often you just need to take it in your stride and be patient with them.

One of the biggest mistakes I see is when parents see this rejection of food as dislike and so stop offering it. It can take multiple times (some people quote up to 10 times and other research shows up to 200 times) for babies to accept tastes, flavours and textures, so my advice is to persevere. (1)
 

Try again another time. And then again. And again. And so on. Repeated exposure to food is so important during weaning and toddlerhood.

But my baby is suddenly refusing all food!

Ok, so we have covered the normal (and somewhat expected) food refusal that happens. But what do you do if your baby is suddenly rejecting all foods you offer? First, we need to understand why.

Are they teething, unwell or coming down with a bug?

Pain, discomfort or generally feeling under the weather will switch off appetite completely and babies won’t want to eat. The most common of these is teething which can be painful for babies.

To ensure they continue to eat some food, offer baby paracetamol and make sure this is given regularly in accordance to the instructions on the bottle so that they are continuously topped up and their pain doesn’t break back through.

Are they comfortable in their highchair?

Babies need to have good stability to be able to master the skills required for eating. Believe it or not, eating is a complex process and involves 8 different sensory components.

Comfort and stability around their middle, around the backs of their legs and under their feet is crucial. A good highchair will support hips, knees and feet at 90 degree angles yet I often see little legs dangling! 

That can be a real problem when it comes to eating well, particularly the more challenging foods. My advice is to invest in a decent highchair or if you can’t manage that, buy a strap on footrest like the Footsie.
You can get 10% off if you use the code TCN10 at the checkout.

Are you encouraging them to eat a bit too much?

Ok, a bit of tough love here but you need to know that babies and toddlers really don’t like it when we parents encourage them to eat. Because babies are still learning, and we are incredibly worried that they are not eating well, babies will interpret our mothering as pressure. And pressure releases a stress hormone in their bodies that switches appetite off!

The best thing to do here is to take a step back, bite your tongue and let your little one explore the food, play with it and make the decision on whether to eat it or not for themselves.

If your baby is persistently refusing to eat, is losing weight, coughs or splutters during mealtimes and is really struggling with food, please do seek help from your GP or health visitor to rule out any medical problems. (2)

What to do if your baby is refusing to eat! by Sarah Almond Bushell - The Children's Nutritionist

Can babies develop a food aversion?

Just like everyone else, babies too can dislike certain foods. However, as we discussed above, make sure you don’t make this assumption based on the first few tries! Food aversion is different. 

It stems from when your baby associates eating with an unpleasant experience they may have had such as a choking episode, unmanaged reflux, an allergic reaction or being unwell. (5)
(6)

Food aversions are a true fear response and your little one will need professional help to overcome this. (3)

Can this be linked to bottle aversion?

Yes, this is often referred to by the medical community as oral aversion and may have started from an experience associated with bottle feeding or tube feeding if your baby was premature (4)

The fear that food (or milk) is going to hurt them causes a spike in adrenaline and babies will often become very distressed, cry and arch their backs if food or bottles are brought towards their mouths.

Again, professional help from a feeding team is really important here.

How long will my baby’s food refusal last?

It depends on the nature of the refusal. 

If it’s part of normal development, tiredness or an issue with their routine, it may well pass with the next developmental leap or the changes you make. 

If it is a feeding aversion, then there is much that needs to be addressed and it may take longer.

Is food throwing a sign of my baby refusing to eat?

No, not necessarily. More often than not, a baby will throw or drop food because they are experimenting with it. They are learning object permanence and where does the food go if I drop or throw it? And they are also noticing the sensory response i.e. the sound of the splat it makes when it hits the floor!

They might also be doing it to get a reaction from you. They may be testing boundaries but they also may be looking for your attention, even if it’s negative attention. Babies will also throw or drop food to get rid of it. Often, this can be a sign that they’re not hungry or that they have finished the meal. 

Whatever the reason, I imagine this isn’t a habit you want them to stick with, so do remind your baby that “food stays on the table.”

What to do if your baby is refusing to eat! by Sarah Almond Bushell - The Children's Nutritionist

Is your baby refusing to eat because of you?

Your little one might be looking for your attention. 

If they spend all day at nursery while you are at work, they may use mealtime behaviours as a way to get a response from you. Even a negative response is good to them, simply because they get your attention. Often the best way to manage this is with lots of one-on-one time outside of the mealtime.

The best way to manage this

Sit with your baby while they eat and engage with them. 

Just like us, babies don’t want to eat without company. Pull up a chair and eat together rather than pottering around the kitchen or starting on the washing up.

It may be too early for you to eat but if you can have a tiny portion of whatever they are having so that you can share the mealtime, your baby will benefit hugely. You can always have your proper meal later.

Portion sizes for babies

A common worry amongst parents is ‘Is my baby eating enough?’. It’s important to remember that all babies are unique. One baby will eat differently to the next and it’s so important (but not easy) to avoid comparison with your friend’s baby.

If your little one is growing and gaining weight, has frequent wet nappies and seems content and happy, then it’s likely that they are getting enough.
Let your little one guide you. Babies have an amazing ability to self-regulate their intake. (8)

As long as they are offered milk and food, they can decide how much they need.
If you need a little bit more help, or are worried that your baby isn’t getting enough, you can purchase our helpful mini guides on portion sizes for weaning here.

What to do if your baby is refusing to eat! by Sarah Almond Bushell - The Children's Nutritionist

What should all parents do to help their baby eat well?

There are a few top tips I can give you so that your baby grows up to be a happy healthy eater and interestingly, many of the parents that I work with know this, but don’t do it.

Repeated Exposure

The last thing you want to do if your baby is refusing to eat certain foods is to stop offering them. 

Perseverance is key as often little ones have to ‘learn’ to like food. A brilliant example of this is my son Charlie. At the age of 3 he eventually started eating mushrooms despite refusing them every time beforehand! 

Be A Role Model

Eat with your little one and eat the same food as them. They are much more likely to accept the food if they see you eating (and enjoying) it too.

What to do if your baby is refusing to eat! by Sarah Almond Bushell - The Children's Nutritionist

Keep Calm

Try to be a calming influence. If they notice that you’re worried, your baby will become even more unsettled and you will have less chance of them eating.

Avoid Encouragement

Never be forceful or even pressure them to try or take one more bite of the food. Let them play around with the food. They may just need time to get used to it before they want to give it a try. Baby steps!

Routine

Try to stick to a good schedule for meals and milk feeds. They may get even more fussy if you chop and change in response to their refusals. (11)

Be Responsive

Responsive feeding refers to observing your child’s cues and acting accordingly in response to them. It’s about letting your little one guide you.

As a parent, it’s your role to:

  • Decide what your baby’s meal will be

  • Decide when they will eat – their routine

  • Decide where they will eat – in a well supported highchair

Your baby’s role is to:

  • Decide if they are going to eat (sometimes they might not)

  • How much they are going to eat

  • When they have finished eating 

It’s really important not to keep offering your baby more food when they are showing signs that they are finished. 

Signs might be, turning their head away, avoiding eye contact, clamping their mouths shut, throwing/dropping food over the side of the highchair. (12)

By asking young children to eat, or stop eating, it is going against their intuition – a skill that babies are born with which could lead to issues later in life such as overeating and loss of appetite regulation. (8)

If you’re worried that food refusal is impacting on nutrition

The best way to assess if your baby is getting enough nutrition is if they are growing and gaining weight. 

Your health visitor will regularly take weight measurements and plot them on growth charts. You may need to ask for length to be measured. If your little one is following their centile line, then you can be reassured that they are doing well!

Don’t forget that plenty of nutrition still comes from breastmilk or formula milk during early weaning.
Meal planning to ensure babies get a wide variety of foods is important once 3 meals a day are established. This is usually around the 7-9 month mark.  

Baby Meal Planning.png

Here is my 5 step guide to baby meal planning:

  1. Start with an iron-rich protein food (meat or plant based) like some slow-cooked lamb, a minced beef meatball, a lentil puree or ½ a boiled egg.

  2. Add a Vitamin C rich food, for example, a broccoli floret or a couple of strawberries halved.

  3. Finish with an energy rich food like a soldier of buttered toast or sweet potato mashed with butter.

  4. Consider the range of colours, textures and smells. The sensory experience is just as important as the nutritional one.

  5. Ensure you’re giving a vitamin supplement containing A, C and D daily (if you are breastfeeding or if your baby is having less than 500ml of formula) such as Nature & Nurture Baby & Child vitamin drops.

For further guidance on baby nutrition, check out my blog post.

With thanks to Claire Pearson, Lauren Telford and Catriona Lawson for their help in bringing this blog together.

Sarah Almond Bushell MPhil, BSc (Hons) RD MBDA - Registered Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist

Sarah Almond Bushell MPhil, BSc (Hons) RD MBDA – Registered Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist

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