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What’s the difference between a fussy eater and a problem feeder?

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Is your child a fussy eater or a problem feeder? Not sure? Understanding the difference might be the key to you getting help for your two-year-old who won’t eat.

Canberra paediatric dietitian, Michelle Saunders (Bulman) from The Healthy Eating Clinic, is encouraging Canberra parents to seek help and support for all levels of fussy eating.

Research shows a clear link between the quality of children’s diets and their risk of long-term health issues. Healthy habits built in the younger years of life follow us into adulthood and support long term health and wellbeing.

However, it’s not always easy to feed kids healthy food!

All parents will know that the two biggest challenges you face when your kids are little are getting them to sleep and eat. It can be a super stressful time for some families. Put that in the context of a busy household, and it’s easy to pass fussy eating off as a phase and hope they grow out of it

So, what’s the difference between a fussy eater and a problem feeder?

Fussy eating is a normal part of early childhood development and is primarily driven by neophobia, the fear of trying new, unfamiliar foods. Neophobia peaks around 2-3 years of age.

A fussy eater can be described as having decreased food variety in their diet, an unwillingness to try new foods and they may even refuse familiar foods. They typically have a problematic relationship with their parent around food: dinner time tantrums anyone?

Some kids will improve these fussy tendencies as they grow, however, many will not. For those who don’t, fussiness can result in kids eating less and less foods and becoming more rigid on what they will and won’t eat. By the time fussy children hit primary school, these habits can be challenging to break.

The earlier you start to address these fussy habits, the better. And the good news is, there are a number of evidence-based strategies to deal with it.

Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility is one of these strategies and dietitian Michelle Saunders says the individualising of this principle to families is a key part of how she helps them tackle the fussy eaters in the home.

“Once a family sets some clear boundaries around when and where food is eaten, and they have a good understanding of their child’s appetite and how much they should be eating, they can then make positive changes to their home environment which will encourage their child to start eating a wider variety of foods,” says Michelle.

“It’s definitely not a quick fix or a big family overhaul. Families need to take time to make these changes realistic and sustainable, and to support their child through the process so they don’t become anxious or unsettled.”

“My goal is to come alongside parents as their ally and support them along the way with clear, practical advice. As a mum of 3 kids myself, I know full well what these families are going through.”

It’s important to note that not all fussy eaters are the result of poor habits.

Some toddlers and kids, known as problem feeders, are struggling to eat because there is an underlying condition affecting the physiological or psychological elements of eating.

In this instance, more help and support is required, often from a multi-disciplinary team which includes an occupational therapist, speech pathologist and dietitian.

The SOS Approach to Feeding Problem Feeders is an evidence-based program that specialises in children with feeding difficulties that go beyond simply being a fussy eater.

These children may have a lack of oral skill development or sensory issues among other things. For these children, they might be starving but they still won’t eat.

If your fussy eater seems to be getting worse over time, then this avenue may be worth exploring with your GP. Ask for a referral to a SOS trained dietitian. Michelle says that progress can be made with your child when you’re working with the right team of health professionals.

“The SOS Approach works because it helps build the skills required for eating through positive reinforcement, meaning kids not only learn how to eat but also learn that mealtimes can be an enjoyable experience.”

So, whether you’ve got a fussy eater or a problem feeder on your hands it’s worth taking some steps to making positive changes in your home to help them eat well long term.

Disclosure: Kate Freeman is a Registered Nutritionist and the founder and Managing Director of The Healthy Eating Clinic.

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