Eating Problems in Children

Changes in eating behaviour that may indicate psychological stress

  • A stressful home environment is a risk factor
  • Age and gender as risk factors depend on the type
  • Genetics is not a significant factor

Eating problems in childhood are very common, affecting about 1 in 10 young children. Usually, the problem is part of growing up and disappears as the child matures. However, persistent problems may be linked to stresses in family life.

What are the types?

Some children appear to eat too little or are fussy about their food. Other children may overeat or have cravings for strange nonfood substances.

Refusing food is often the way in which toddlers try to assert their independence, and the problem is serious only if normal growth or weight gain is affected. Food refusal in older children may be due to emotional distress and, in very severe cases, may be a sign of anorexia nervosa, particularly in girls. Loss of appetite, which is common during childhood illnesses, is not the same as food refusal, although it may also be caused by anxiety.

Fussy eating habits affect about 1 in 4 children of school age. The fussy child insists on eating only certain foods, but dietary problems rarely occur unless the range of foods is very narrow.

Pica is a craving to eat nonfood substances, such as soil, coal, or chalk. This disorder can sometimes be hazardous. For example, licking or eating certain types of paint can cause severe lead poisoning. Pica usually occurs in children who have other behavioural problems and is possibly associated with a nutritional deficiency, such as a lack of iron.

Overeating commonly leads to obesity. (see Obesity in children). A child may eat for comfort if he or she feels neglected or insecure.

What might be done?

If your child is reluctant to eat, there are practical ways in which you can help (see Encouraging your child to eat). However, if the child fails to gain weight, loses weight, or has pica, you should consult the doctor, who may refer your child to a child psychologist or psychiatrist.

Self-help: Encouraging your Child to Eat

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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