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Eating difficulties in children

Specialist Nurse Advisers – Mental Health, Bupa
03 July 2020

Mealtimes can sometimes be tricky when you’re trying to make sure that children and young people are eating well. And this can be particularly tough if they have difficulty eating. Caring for a person with an eating difficulty can be challenging, especially at a time when many people are already very stressed. In this article, we look at some practical ways to cope with this during the pandemic.

What is an eating difficulty?

An eating difficulty is any behaviour that stops a child or young person eating a balanced diet. There are many reasons for this, but common issues include:

  • sensory preferences to do with the taste, look, smell or texture of food
  • fear of, or refusal to try new foods (neophobia)
  • ‘picky’ or ‘fussy’ eating (avoiding certain foods or groups of foods)

Some of these behaviours are fairly common in childhood, but for a small number of children they can become a problem. This might mean they aren’t gaining enough weight or getting all the nutrients they need.

It’s important to get help from your GP if you’re concerned about your child’s eating behaviour. They will be able to provide you with appropriate help and support.

The impact of coronavirus

COVID-19 may have made eating difficulties worse for some children and young people. This is because anxiety, stress, and changes in routine can be upsetting and confusing. You may find that spending so much time together as a family is also making things harder.

It’s important to remember during stressful times that there will be good and bad days. Try not to worry about slow progress. Instead, try to focus on keeping structure and routine wherever possible.

Spending a lot of time together may also mean that you have noticed eating habits in your child that you hadn’t before. If you’re concerned, try monitoring these behaviours to see if there are any patterns, such as issues with certain food groups.

Food shopping

It can be stressful to shop for children and young people who have very strong food preferences. This can be especially difficult if it’s hard to find the foods they usually eat. If they’re old enough, you might find it helpful to talk to your child about other foods they like that you are able to buy instead.

If you can’t to get to the shops to buy the food you need, try explaining the situation to a friend or family member who can do this for you. There are lots of local support groups who may be able to help too. If you can do your shopping online, you could try and make this into an activity that you and your child can do together.

Preparing for mealtimes

If you’re worried that your child is struggling to eat a balanced diet, you might find it useful to plan ahead for mealtimes. Planning can help to reduce the anxiety around meals for everybody. Preparing for a mealtime can include:

  • letting your child or young person know in advance what food will be served
  • talking to them about how you would like them to behave during the meal
  • explaining to them that you will support them, and how they can ask for your help

At the table

When you’re eating a meal, it can be good to divert attention away from the food by doing other things. These might include:

  • conversations about neutral topics that don’t mention food or weight
  • having the TV or radio on in the background
  • playing a board game or a game of cards
  • doing some colouring or completing an activity book

  • Self-care

    Looking after a child or young person with eating difficulties can be stressful and emotional. While you may be focussed on their needs, it’s important to remember to take care of yourself as well. If possible, take some time to do something you find relaxing. Reach out to friends and family if you can, and contact your GP if you need advice and support.

    Harriet Finlayson and Danielle Panton
    Specialist Nurse Advisers – Mental Health, Bupa

      • Feeding your toddler/pre-school child. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, accessed 29 June 2020
      • Yang HR. How to approach feeding difficulties in young children. Korean J Pediatr 2017; 60(12): 379-384. doi: 10.3345/kjp.2017.60.12.379
      • Coronavirus and Supporting Someone. Beat Eating Disorders. www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk, updated 4 June 2020
      • Eating disorders: a guide for friends and family. Beat Eating Disorders. www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk, accessed 29 June 2020

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