My baby does not want to eat: what we should not do and what can work

Food is a topic that frequently appears in the pediatric consultation. Many parents come in worried because they think their baby is not eating enough or because they have noticed that she used to eat more and now she seems to have lost interest in food. Check out more articles on our site.

In most cases, this should not be a problem because babies are born knowing how to identify their hunger and satiety; we parents are the ones who must “trust” them and learn to interpret the signals they send us, telling us when they are hungry and when they don’t want to eat anymore. How to act when our baby does not want to eat? In what situations can there be a problem?

Under six months

In this age range, babies usually drink only milk (breast milk or starter formula). Newborns usually take between 8 and 12 feeds a day and, as they grow, the number of feeds may decrease.

In these first moments we are getting to know each other and we must know how to interpret their hunger signals to come on time. When the newborn begins to feel hungry, he becomes agitated, opens his mouth and moves his head looking for the breast. If he spends more time, he stretches, moves more and puts his hands to his mouth. Crying is already a late sign; At this point, some babies find it difficult to latch on to the breast or take the bottle, because we have “arrived late”; in some cases it may be necessary to calm them down before offering them food.

It’s also important to know that they don’t just cry because they’re hungry : if we offer them the breast or bottle and they don’t want to, that’s probably not what they need. Maybe it’s a diaper change, sleep, or just a need to be held .

In breastfed babies, families often have questions about whether they are eating well . The best indicator for this is weight, which we pediatricians will control during check-ups.

At first, babies take very long feeds at the breast, and as they grow, they become shorter, as they become expert suckers. Thus, shots at 2 or 3 months may last only a few minutes.

It is precisely at this stage that the so-called three-month crisis appears : babies breastfeed faster and faster, everything around them seems more interesting than the breast, they are easily distracted, and they demand feeds less frequently. Added to this is that the breast is no longer full as it was at first, so mothers have the false feeling that the baby is not eating enough.

Start of complementary feeding

The current recommendation is to maintain exclusive breastfeeding for up to six months and subsequently offer foods other than milk little by little; is complementary feeding . In the case of bottle-fed babies, the age to start complementary feeding is not so well established, but it is also usually recommended to do it around six months.

At this point, some babies show a lot of interest in food and others continue to feed almost exclusively on milk, with the consequent concern of their parents.

It is important to have clear ideas about this stage. The first is that the standard recommendation is to start complementary feeding at around six months ; some babies may be ready a little earlier and others may not need it until a little later.

The second concept to highlight is that milk continues to be the main food ; For this reason, the rest of the foods are called complementary foods, because they complement milk.

And finally, to say that babies also have their preferences and there are foods that they like more and others that they like less. Sometimes it is necessary to taste a food up to 10 or 15 times until we like it. Breastfed babies may have a better acceptance of new foods because they have tasted different flavors through their mother’s milk.

From the year

Many children begin to eat less from the year. One of the reasons is that growth is not as rapid as during the first months of life. And it is that a baby doubles its weight at birth around 4-6 months of life and triples it at 12 months. Can you imagine that they continued with that rhythm?

Another reason is that they eat (or should eat) mostly solids and it seems that they eat less. In addition, as they grow they also define their preferences, and can even stop eating foods that they previously ate well.

What things we should not do

Regardless of the age at which our child does not want to eat, none of the following strategies have been shown to work and may even be counterproductive:

  • Forcing a child to eat . Never. We must put healthy food within their reach and children must be able to choose what and how much they want to eat. Forcing a child to eat can have the opposite effect : it has been seen that these children then have a lower consumption of fruits and vegetables. All the traditionally used strategies come into this context: the plane, a teaspoon for mom and another for dad… In addition, forcing a child to eat has been linked to eating behavior disorders later.
  • Force to finish the plate . The American Academy of Pediatrics states that the Clean Plate Club must be “done “. Babies are born with an innate ability to respond to their hunger and fullness cues, and that’s a good thing; forcing them to finish the plate can modify that self-regulation and no health benefit has been seen in it; on the contrary, they can promote obesity. Putting smaller portions and/or plates can help them finish it. But we must know that a child who does not finish his food is a normal child (who knows when he is full).
  • Eat with screens . On the one hand, children under 2 years of age should not be exposed to screens . On the other hand, eating in front of the television (or any other distraction) makes us less aware of what we eat, and can lead to consuming excess calories and thus promote obesity.
  • Use food as a reward or as a punishment . This means that certain foods take on positive or negative connotations : for example, that a dessert is perceived as good (“since you have behaved well, I will give you an ice cream”) and a vegetable as bad.

What things can work with a child who does not eat

  • Before six months. As we have said, babies are capable of regulating their intake according to their needs: they eat if they are hungry and stop eating when they are full. So if a baby this age refuses food, chances are she doesn’t need it. Only in some exceptions, which we will see later, will they be a cause for concern. Special mention deserves the crisis of three months , this period in which the baby shows much more interest in everything that happens around her than in food. It’s often helpful to shoot in a quiet, dimly lit location. In fact, mothers often report that night feeds are much better than daytime feeds.
  • Introduction of complementary feeding . It is important here that our baby is ready to start this stage: he remains more or less seated , has lost the extrusion reflex and shows interest in food . It should start around six months of age, but we must bear in mind that some babies hardly eat anything other than milk at first, and this does not have to be a problem. We must continue to offer different foods without forcing. If we notice that you don’t like a food the first time, we shouldn’t rule it out entirely; we can continue to offer it 2-3 times a week (always without obligation). The modality of offering the complementary feeding (crushed or through Baby Led Weaning ) must be a decision of the parents after being informed. However, it may happen that the chosen method is not suitable for our baby, or it is not suitable at that specific time, and we must rethink it.
  • From one year on, children can eat practically the same as the rest of the family. Some of the following tips can help you eat better (and are also applicable from 6 months)
  • Eating as a family Babies and children do many things by imitation. If we lead by example, they are likely to eat better. We must try to make the meal a pleasant and relaxed moment; it is good that, whenever possible, we all eat the same.
  • Let the children choose . Children eat best what they have decided they want to eat. Thus, we can let them choose the fruit they want to snack on or put several food groups on the plate (a little protein, a little carbohydrate and a lot of fruit and vegetables) and let them decide what and how much they want to eat. .
  • Offer without forcing . We have already commented previously that forcing people to eat is useless. We are responsible for offering our children healthy food, and they are responsible for what and how much to eat. Children are able to regulate their hunger and satiety, and children who are allowed to do so have been shown to have lower rates of obesity later in life.
  • Arrange food attractively . Children, like adults, often eat “with their eyes.” If we put an attractive dish, it is more likely that they will want to eat it. We can even make shapes and figures with food. This point is especially important with new foods.
  • Offer the foods that are most difficult for them to eat cooked in different ways . They may not like braised cauliflower but they eat it well with bechamel sauce , battered or as a base for a pizza . Today we are lucky enough to have millions of different recipes at our fingertips .
  • Make what we want them to eat visible (and what we don’t want them to eat hidden or non-existent). Thus, for example, we can leave the fruit in a fruit bowl in sight. When they are hungry between meals they are more likely to notice her.
  • Involve them in the feeding process. Many children eat better what they have made. Accompanying us to buy food and helping us cook it is a good strategy for them to eat better.

When should we consult?

As we have seen, babies are born with an innate ability to self-regulate, and they know how to interpret when they are hungry and when they are full. Thus, the most common thing when a child does not want to eat is that she does not need it. However, in some situations, refusing food may mean something more and should be seen by the pediatrician.

  • When it comes to a newborn : if many hours go by between feedings , they are very lethargic , they have a hard time latching on to the breast or taking the bottle.
  • If, in addition to not wanting to eat, we notice other symptoms: listlessness or apathy, irritability , loss or little weight gain , signs of dehydration (mucous membranes are very dry, you pee very little and/or you are very thirsty), gastrointestinal symptoms ( frequent vomiting and /or abnormal bowel movements )…

In any of these situations, the loss of appetite may be due to some disease and we must assess it.

As a summary, we must be clear that babies are born being able to identify when they are hungry and when they do not want to eat anymore . It is up to us, the parents, to respect it. Our responsibility is to make healthy food available to you; children will be able to choose what and how much they eat.

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