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Toddler Tips

Active Toddlers' Eating Habits

From New Beginnings, Vol. 26 No. 2, 2009, pp. 30-31

"Toddler Tips" is a regular feature of the magazine NEW BEGINNINGS, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of NEW BEGINNINGS to help parents of toddlers. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's lifestyle. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.

Mother's Situation

My 14-month-old breastfeeds avidly, but she's really not eating a whole lot of food. She runs around a lot, and I'm worried that she's not getting proper nutrition. What have other mothers found is the right amount of food for a young, active toddler?

Mother's Response

One thing that helped me was to separate good table manners from eating. We didn't expect the children to stay at the table if they didn't want to eat. I would let them eat at other times if they wished. For instance, I would give them finger foods to eat when they were in the buggy or in the backpack. They seemed to eat without realizing they were doing so at those times.

Barbara Childs
Devon, GB

Mother's Response

It can be worrisome when your breastfed toddler seemingly eats nothing when all your friends' toddlers appear to eat lots of food. How can she possibly survive? I ran into this scenario with both of my children, when it seemed like between the ages of about 13 to 18 months they survived on breastmilk and air!

Several things helped me feel more comfortable with my children's eating habits. I tried to make sure that any food available to them was nutritious. This is not the time for lots of sweets and junk food! I realized that even though my children's food choices might seem odd to me, like eating only one or two types of food per day, over the course of a week or so they actually ate quite a variety of foods.

A reference that helped me a lot was My Child Won't Eat! by Carlos Gonzalez, MD. See Dr. Gonzalez points out that the comment "eat your food so you'll grow" is actually incorrect. Children eat because they are growing. When they are growing quickly their bodies need lots of calories. When their growth slows down, they don't need to eat as much. Babies in their first year of life and adolescents are growing at a tremendous rate, so they eat a lot. Toddlers' growth slows down in the second year, so their appetites diminish too.

Another point Dr. Gonzalez made is that babies and toddlers are very smart. Your milk is more nutritious than anything else your child can eat. For a toddler who is busy exploring the world, it makes much more sense to make brief stops for mom's "energy drink" than to take time to eat food that isn't as nutritionally rich.

If you are providing a variety of nutritious foods for your toddler and not shifting her tastes with lots of sweet things or packaged foods, you can be pretty sure that she will eat what she needs. As long as she is still nursing, that will help round out her nutritional needs. If your daughter is generally happy, healthy, has lots of energy, and is meeting normal growth milestones, she's probably getting what she needs.

I came to the realization that it was my job as a mother to provide my children with regular servings of a variety of nutritious foods. It is my children's job to eat what they want and the amount they want of what is served. This realization took a huge burden of worry and guilt off me. My children are growing well and we don't have fights about food.

Dawn Burke
Suwanee, GA, USA

Mother's Response

If your daughter is still taking lots of breastmilk she probably doesn't need large amounts of other foods at the moment. She won't be growing so fast now she's past 12 months. If she is healthy and active then you can trust that she is getting enough for her needs.

My daughter only ate tiny amounts of solid foods until well into her second year. I came to the conclusion this was because she really wasn't hungry. As she grew older she gradually started eating a greater variety of foods in larger amounts and of course eventually gave up breastfeeding too. All that time she still continued to grow along the same growth chart line and, at 12 years old, is still on it. Now she's starting her teenage growth spurt. Of course, she's a whole lot hungrier.

I wonder how much easier it would be for us grown-ups to maintain a healthy weight if we had been encouraged as small children to stop eating when we were "no longer hungry" rather than when the plate was empty? By teaching young children to ignore the message of fullness that their body is giving them, parents may be establishing unhealthy eating habits.

Sue Upstone
West Sussex, GB

Mother's Response

I have found that how much food a toddler needs varies quite a bit depending on how much of your milk they're getting. When I became pregnant with my second child, my milk started drying up and, as a result, my first child suddenly started eating dramatically more food than she'd been eating before. Children who have regular access to a variety of foods they can enjoy eating will typically do a pretty good job of eating as much as they need.

You do not have to provide a wide variety at every meal but throughout the day you can at least cover all the basics. I try to make sure my child has access to protein (meat, cheese, eggs, milk, yogurt, and beans), carbohydrates (bread, crackers, etc.), a vegetable or two and a fruit every day. If he doesn't eat much, I assume it's because he's getting enough from me. I have noticed that he eats a lot more if he doesn't nurse right before the meal.

Newt Sherwin
Oak Park, IL, USA

Mother's Response

My daughter had the same problem! I found out I had to really switch things up. I tried frozen baby food, freshly made baby food, and jarred baby food. I tried all different flavors of everything and would find some things she would only take a few bites of.

I finally figured out that if I gave her snacks all day she would eat. Then I found out if I played music or moved her high chair so she could see out the window, or gave her a cool toy (that she only got to play with at mealtimes) she would eat more because she was distracted. She liked it when I gave her utensils to use and let her try to feed herself while I spooned food to her.

I found that milkshakes worked well (healthy ones not the kind with ice cream). I would make a strawberry/banana/yogurt milkshake and sweeten it with honey or pear juice.

Ask your pediatrician if you are worried: I found out my daughter has a hard time eating when she is getting a bunch of teeth at once (like the dreaded molars); and my pediatrician checked for iron deficiency.

Elizabeth Vallejo
Duluth, GA, USA

Editor's Note: If you have concerns about your child's growth, please discuss them with your child's physician. Remember that for the first year of life, human milk maybe a child's primary source of nutrition if following the recommended guidelines. After one year of age, other foods gradually start to play a larger role in a child's diet until, at some point, the child is no longer breastfeeding.

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