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Ask: Is picky eating a problem for the long term?

Joan Comrie.
Joan Comrie.

Q: My child is a picky eater. Will her picky eating cause long-term problems?

A: Several large studies have suggested that picky eating as a child increases the risk for adolescent and adult eating disorders (anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa). That’s the bad news. The good news is that picky eating can be improved with feeding therapy.

Picky eating is a typical developmental stage for toddlers. During the picky eating stage, toddlers assert their independence by refusing foods. They become very suspicious and cautious with anything that is new or subtly different than what they are accustomed to. They may eat a food one day and refuse it the next. Most children work through the picky eating stage well before kindergarten.

But what if your child maintains picky eating behaviors? How does a parent know when the behaviors become concerning enough to get professional help? The presence of any of the following behaviors increases the risk of developing an eating disorder:

• Early feeding difficulties.

• Excessive eating of sweets and snacks.

• Requiring specially prepared foods (short-order cooking).

• Mealtime control issues between child and parents.

• Rigidity, fear or aversion to new or non-favorite foods.

If your child is still a picky eater at age 4 or older and these behaviors sound familiar, it is time to get professional help. Prompt evaluation and initiation of treatment will enable healthy changes in feeding behaviors that can reduce the risk of developing an eating disorder in the future.

Until you are able to get help, the following are things that you can do now to reduce the risk of picky eating and eating disorders:

• Structure family mealtimes.

• Be good role models of healthy eating.

• Encourage and reinforce healthy eating behaviors.

• Turn off distractions during the meal to encourage social interaction and positive mealtime experiences.

• Do not engage in mealtime battles.

• Do not short-order cook.

• Reduce any mealtime stress.

Feeding therapy is a process that will enable positive change to both the parent’s and child’s behaviors. It can open the door for a healthy future for your child, and it may reduce the risk of an adolescent or adult eating disorder. If you are concerned, get professional help now.

Joan Dietrich Comrie of Carolina Pediatric Dysphagia (919-877-9800) specializes in the treatment of pediatric dysphagia.