Tips to deal with a picky eater
Why do babies lose interest in eating?
13 November 2023
Babies grow significantly in their first year of life, fuelled by milk at first and then by solid food from around six months old. Most babies eat well during these early months but once a baby reaches their first birthday a pattern often emerges where, even babies who loved to eat previously, begin to lose interest in food.
Ternity Group’s Nourish Baby Health Writer, Jane Barry explains why this can happen and what parents and carers can do to encourage eating.
Why is my baby not interested in eating?
If your baby is healthy and well then it’s unlikely there’s a physical reason for them not being interested in food and often they’ll start eating again just as quickly as they stopped. Lots of things can impact their eating habits – sleep, development and behaviour can all play a part. Some babies are more sensitive than others and even the slightest change to their day-to-day life (teething, a restless night, illness etc.) can affect their eating.
It’s also quite normal for babies and young children to like something one day and dislike it the next – their preference for taste, shape, colour and texture can change and their appetite can go up and down depending on how much they’re growing and how active they are. Choosing what to eat or not eat is a normal part of a child’s development as they become more independent.
Each baby is different but some common reasons why they may stop eating are that they’re:
- already satisfied from their milk and food and are just not hungry
- getting sick, are already sick, or are recovering from illness
- bored with the food being offered and want a change
- not interested in trying new food and want the same food they’ve had before
- going through a developmental change which is taking up their attention.
How can I encourage my baby to eat more?
Don’t delay safely introducing your baby to food with different textures from around six months old – sometimes babies will refuse foods with new textures but it’s important that they progress beyond soft foods and purees. The general advice is that babies need to be offered a new food 10 times or more before they’ll try it, so be patient as they learn to expand their diet to include new things. Try to:
- Look for their hunger cues. Babies are more likely to eat well when they’re hungry so try to be organised with meal prep and keep offering them food when they’re hungry.
- Vary your baby’s food. Boredom can lead to food refusal so vary the food you’re offering them – try putting a small amount of new food on the plate with food they already like.
- Avoid ‘treat’ foods. Babies quickly learn to favour sweet tastes and can fill up on things like yoghurt and fruit. They’re more likely to try new food if they don’t have a ‘treat’ option!
- Role model healthy eating. Position their highchair against the table and eat together as a family where possible (turning the TV or devices off so they’re not distracted).
- Cut back on your baby’s milk feeds. Too much milk in your baby’s diet will fill them up so from nine months old offer your baby food first and then milk.
- Check if your baby is filling up on water. Some babies just love to drink and, while sips of water are fine, if they’re drinking lots of water it can affect their appetite.
- Support your baby’s skills in feeding themselves. Once they show interest in picking up food with their fingers, playing with food and self-feeding, they don’t need to be spoon fed.
- Make mealtimes fun! Offer your baby food in a variety of colours, shapes and sizes. Be calm and patient (where possible!) and try to avoid rewards, bargaining and threats.
- Aim for consistent mealtimes and limit them to around 20–30 minutes. Children thrive on predictability and routine so be consistent and avoid ‘snacking’ between meals.
- Don’t overload your child’s plate. It’s easy for babies to feel overwhelmed so start small, you can always add more!
When should I ask an expert?
You know your baby best so if you feel like something isn’t right then it’s always worth following your gut instinct and seeing your GP or paediatrician for peace of mind. A sore throat or generally feeling unwell can impact your baby’s appetite so visit your GP if you think it might be a symptom of illness. You can also ask your GP to check your baby’s iron levels as sometimes low iron (anaemia) can cause a lack of appetite and iron supplements might be needed.
If you’re concerned that your baby is underweight, speak to your child health nurse and/or GP about your child’s growth patterns – they can check their percentile (growth) charts to make sure they’re following the same growth curve and are not dropping down or underweight.
Ternity Group supports Teachers Health members through the New Families Program.
Nourish Baby Health Writer Jane Barry has qualifications in general, paediatric, immunisation, midwifery and child health nursing. She holds a Bachelor Degree in Applied Science (Nursing) and has almost 35 years specialist experience in child health nursing.