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Help - My Older Child Is Refusing Food!

Posted by admin Monday, October 22, 2012

Many parents ask us what to do when their first child (who was maybe baby-led weaned) starts refusing food when they’re weaning their younger sibling. It might seem really confusing - why on earth would your child, who previously loved feeding themselves and enjoyed a wide range of foods, suddenly become fussy?
Well, something similar happens with children who weren’t baby-led weaned, too, when parents are weaning their younger sibling.

What’s this about?

If this behaviour coincides with when you’re weaning their younger sibling, then it’s easy to get misled into thinking that the problem is eating or food-related. It can be confusing when your child seems to be becoming a fussy eater, or suddenly doesn’t like foods they used to love.
In this situation, chances are that it’s not about food or their likes or dislikes; it’s about attention. Children who were spoon-fed during weaning often suddenly demand to be spoon-fed or say they can’t feed themselves when they see parents spoon-feeding their younger sibling. This is because parents are giving a lot of attention to the child they’re weaning during mealtimes. During those periods, the older child may feel insecure and want the one-to-one time during mealtimes that they see their sibling getting.
Young children often don’t have the self-awareness to make sense of complex feelings in the way that we can, as adults. They also don’t have the vocabulary to explain how they’re feeling and what they need, when their feelings are complex. The way to get what they need, then, is to show you that they need you just as much as their sibling does, which they do by regressing to a previous stage. None of this is thought out, or deliberately manipulative. Children are wired to survive, and the relationship with you is fundamental for this. They are wired to get you to respond to their needs, first and foremost.
So when baby-led weaned children feel insecure at mealtimes, what can they do? Well, they can’t regress to spoon-feeding, as they weren’t spoon-fed! So they can’t demand to be spoon fed, but they can refuse food as a way of getting you to pay them more attention.
What can I do?
If you understand that this isn’t food-related and your child wants attention, then you can respond appropriately. Some ideas that might help are:
-         Include your older child in mealtime conversations, so it really becomes a group time. Don’t assume they can eat while you turn your attention to your other little one. If your attention is focused on your younger child, your older child will notice this – it’s a big deal to them.
-         Give your older child an important role in what’s happening. You could do this by talking to them about what you’re giving your younger child today and asking for their help, for example in preparing it (e.g. peeling the banana or drizzling oil over some veggies). You could also explain that you need their help in showing their younger sibling how yummy food is, how we all enjoy food, or how to eat food.
-         Give your older child some ownership and control over the process. Let your older child help to choose what you give your younger child; i.e. you make a high level choice (vegetables) and they get to choose something you include in everyone’s meal. Frame it that you need their help in deciding what you all have today. This way, you still get to give your younger child an A or B choice, to help them develop their own choice-making abilities.
-         Make sure everybody has similar-looking foods on their plate, so you’re all eating food in the same form (e.g. so everybody has steamed broccoli).
-         Give your older child extra attention at other times and make them feel important – ask for their help and opinions day to day so they feel needed.
-         Familiarise your older child with what’s happening and frame it as a joint endeavour. Talk to them often at other times about what we are doing so that they are prepared for what will happen at mealtimes (e.g. when we have lunch we’regoing to teach your baby sister/brother all about the yummy food we eat). It’ll be less likely to make them feel suddenly insecure at mealtimes.
It’s important to remain mindful of times when it’s normal for children to become fussier (i.e. when they go through periods of neophobia – fear of new foods) and to support them through this.
So whenever your child behaves differently with food, take a step back and work out what it’s really about. Decide whether the issue is food-related, or whether your child is regressing, so that you can respond in a way that helps them grow and develop.

Image courtesy of www.freedigitalphotos,net

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