Across all cultures, enjoying a meal can represent more than simply consuming our daily nutrient requirements.
Food can bring people together, celebrate an occasion, convey our feelings and is an important aspect of many cultural and religious identities. However, for some families, meal times represent a battleground of distress, avoidance, and anxiety when children have eating difficulties.
Approximately one in four children experience eating problems during early childhood with one in two families stating that their child actively avoids particular foods. These difficulties are present in some children from birth and infancy, whilst other children develop eating difficulties related to environmental or psychological triggers.
Eating problems are a common challenge for many parents. However, when these behaviours are accompanied by physical health, behavioural or emotional problems or are causing significant distress to children or parents it is important for them to seek support. Without intervention, insufficient nutrient consumption can lead to delays in motor skills, speech and language development as well as stress and mental health difficulties.
Children with eating difficulties are usually restricted in either:
- The variety of foods consumed (typical description of picky eaters)
- The quantity of foods consumed (includes appetite issues, lack of interest, avoiding eating)
- The texture of foods consumed (for example, children only eating pureed or chewy foods).
By the time many families present for treatment, meal times are well established as a negative experience for both parents and children. Children have often developed an intense fear of foods and can become highly distressed at the sight or suggestion of new foods.
Behavioural family interventions are the most effective approaches to the treatment of child feeding problems. This involves helping parents to alter the family’s feeding practices to promote improvements in their child’s eating behaviours.