This post follows on from my last - it is the second half of my answer to Lydia's questions about picky eating. She wanted to know if picky eating is 'just a phase'. The quick answer is "normally - yes." The long answer is not so simple. When we talk about 'phases', what we are really describing is something that is developmentally normal for a child. For example, many parents recognise a 'clingy phase' that their child goes through at around six to eight months. This is normal for a child of this age and indicates a healthy attachment. It is also bound up with the baby's inability to understand that her care-giver has not disappeared for good as soon as he or she is out of sight. In other words, an amount of moderate separation anxiety is to be expected when babies reach this age. The key feature of a phase is that it is a pattern of behaviour that children move in and out of. As parents, our job is simply to weather the storm and eventually we will come out the other side.
So going back to picky eating, scientists have long known that it appears to be developmentally normal for children to suddenly become much fussier about what they'll eat at around eighteen months old 1. Some researchers have put forward a very interesting evolutionary argument for this 2. They suggest that once a child has learnt to walk, it makes evolutionary sense for her only to want to eat things that are recognisable as 'safe' food. The argument goes that, back in our hunter-gatherer days, if a child did not have this safety mechanism in place, she might wander off and start to eat brightly coloured poisonous berries. This makes sense when we think of our modern-day fussy eaters, many of whom tend to favour food that is beige and dry - sticking resolutely to the familiar. Equally, it makes sense when we think that most children grow out of fussy eating (ie. exit the phase) at about the same age as they would have developed the cognitive ability to distinguish between poisonous and safe foods.
When a child suddenly decides to reject foods that she previously ate enthusiastically, this can make parents feel very anxious, frustrated or even angry. The child picks up on these emotional reactions and can very easily get 'stuck' in the picky phase, repeating the behaviours because of the powerful emotional reactions they elicit.
What should you do?
Picky eating is a phase - it is normal and it usually passes. The key to getting through it and emerging to tell the tale is to stay relaxed and NEVER give in to the (very natural) desire to coax your child into eating. Get your child's weight and growth checked. Reassure yourself that you have no cause to worry and remember that the chances of you having a picky eighteen year old on your hands are slim.
1.S. Johnson, (2002). Children's food acceptance patterns: The interface of ontogeny and nutrition needs. Nutrition Reviews, Vol. 60, pp. S91-S94
2.Y. Martins, (2002) Try it, you'll like it! Early dietary experiences and food acceptance patterns. The Journal of Pediatric Nutrition and Development, Vol. 98, No.12-16, pp. 18-20