Worried your toddler is underweight?

Pressuring children to eat may upset your child’s natural appetite-control system, resulting in him ignoring his internal hunger and satiety cues.

Are you worried that your little one might be underweight, or not growing enough in comparison to other children their age? We chat to a registered dietitian about common questions and concerns over the eating habits of toddlers.

Some children are short. Some children are taller. Some are petite, while others are a little more sturdy-built. Just like adults, children come in all shapes and sizes, but if you notice that your child is smaller than her friends at school, it’s natural to wonder if she’s growing up normally. Most kids take easily to eating solids for the first time. Being naturally inquisitive, children will try a variety of gloopy and colourful tastes and textures. Unfortunately, as babies become toddlers, their tastes in foods begin to change dramatically. As parents, this period may be particularly stressful, leaving you worried about whether your child’s diet meets their growing needs. This is a greater concern if your child is growing more slowly than their peers. Registered dietitian Abigail Courtenay says many parents have similar worries regarding their toddler’s eating habits. Therefore, it is important to know what’s “normal” regarding your child’s growth and development. Read on…

What is normal eating behaviour?

You can safely assume that children gaining weight appropriately according to their growth chart are getting enough to eat (even if you believe they should be eating more). Your child’s appetite will depend on various factors, such as tiredness, activity levels, and growth spurts. Some children experience what is known as a food “jag”. This is when a child becomes fixated on a certain type of food or food group and refuses all other foods. It is not clear how long these food jags last, but a child’s overall nutritional status is often not affected by them.

Did you know that children between the ages of three and five years of age have demonstrated the ability to self-regulate their energy intake?  

Health consequences of undernutrition or being underweight

Being underweight interferes with optimal growth and development as it is often related to nutrient deficiencies. Specific nutrients are required to support your child’s cognitive health, immunity, and physical development.

A word on supplementation

If you are concerned about your child’s diet, observe slow growth patterns, or if your child is falling behind in height and weight, this could be a good opportunity to introduce a drink-type nutritional supplement. Drinks, such as PediaSure, are often well tolerated by most children and can be made into fun and tasty snacks using various flavours like hot chocolate or fruit purée. Drinks are preferential as they are easier to consume between meals and may be more acceptable and manageable for your child.

Causes of slow growth

Here are a few factors that could lead to slow growth:

  • Poor appetite (this may also occur in healthy children)
  • Acute or chronic illness
  • Restrictive eating due to illness (like allergies) or misinformation
  • Poor absorption (e.g. coeliac disease)
  • Chewing or swallowing difficulties (e.g. children with cerebral palsy)

What should I avoid doing?

  • Never force or pressurise your child to eat.
  • Avoid preparing separate or special meals for your child.
  • Never give rewards for trying new foods.

Never force a child to eat

Pressuring young children to eat may cause over-eating, which may lead to excessive weight gain, or cause them actually to eat less due to the stress. Either way, pressuring children to eat may upset your child’s natural appetite-control system, resulting in him ignoring his internal hunger and satiety cues.

Help your child enjoy food more

  • Offer a variety of nutritious foods.
  • Schedule meal and snack times (this makes eating a routine and helps manage your child’s nutritional needs).
  • Repeat exposure to foods (sometimes it can take up to 15 repeated exposures before a food is liked or tolerated).
  • Provide more frequent but smaller meals.
  • Be your child’s role model for healthy eating by eating healthy foods yourself.
  • Remove distractions at mealtimes, including TV, tablets, and phones.