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Do you ever wonder about your toddler’s ability to survive on what seems like nothing more than air and the occasional sip of water? This phenomenon is also known as a “hunger strike”—a flat-out refusal to eat. As frustrating and confusing as it can be, the experts have weighed in to assure us that, more often than not, it’s a completely normal phase in toddler development.

After speaking to three pediatric nutritionists, we discovered that there are some real biological and psychological things happening during this period in toddler development that have a direct effect on their eating patterns and preferences.

Growth

Babies grow very quickly, but once they hit age one, the rate of growth slows quite a bit. So, it’s not abnormal for your once ravenous child to eat less or skip meals. It’s their biological way of regulating the amount of food they actually need. “Toddlers have itty bitty stomachs and may eat less than what their adults expect from them," says LeeAnn Weintraub, MPH, RD. "Toddlers tend to do better with a meal pattern consisting of small meals and multiple healthy snacks versus three main meals only." If your toddler is refusing to eat, it could be because he or she is simply not hungry, she adds.

Food Neophobia

We sometimes forget just how much primal instincts define behavior. Food neophobia stems from ancestral intuition that protected humans from consuming foods that could be harmful. And while we know that the foods we serve are safe, our toddler’s innate senses might become activated by foods that appear abnormal or have an unfamiliar smell or texture (cottage cheese, anyone?).

Temperament

The toddler phase is challenging. A need for independence can lead to battles for control while toddlers test the limits of what they can get away with. Adding a predisposition toward a strong-willed attitude can magnify mealtime issues. “It’s up to parents to monitor their own reaction while considering the personality of the child,” says Jana Greene Hand, MS, RD. Forceful feeding methods only build more resistance, she says.

So how do parents guide their children through this phase?

Certified nutritionist and self-proclaimed picky-eating expert Danielle Binns encourages parents to try—at the onset of introducing solids—her “4 E’s to Better Eating” approach to help children develop a healthy and adventurous relationship with food.

  • Enjoyment: Create a calm and enjoyable mealtime experience, removing any anxiety that can inhibit appetite.
  • Exposure to different foods: Serve a variety of foods.
  • Exploration: Encourage the exploration of foods through feel, smell, taste and touch.
  • Expansion: Gradually grow the list of foods.

Binns does, however, recognize that there are instances when a deeper assessment and plan may be needed, stating that “[…] about 47 percent of children are deemed picky eaters, and within that category, roughly 10 percent are extreme cases. Developmental picky eaters usually grow out the phase over time, while children who really struggle tend to have underlying sensory, physical and anxiety issues.”

If you’re concerned that your child’s refusal to eat is more than a developmental phase, checking in with their pediatrician to make sure their natural growth curve and labs are all within the normal range could put your mind at ease.

—Candace Nagy

Mother. Writer. Lover of history and nature. Read more by Candace here.