by Ann Burgess.

The amount children eat depends on the food they are offered, their appetite and how their mothers or other carers feed them

If parents complain that their child ‘refuses to eat’, spend time discussing what they can do.

First, identify why the child is not eating. For example, is the child sick or unhappy? Is the child jealous of a new baby and trying to get more attention? Is the child tired when fed? Is the food too spicy or difficult to eat? Does the child have enough time to eat? Is the child given sweets, sodas or other snacks so they are not hungry at mealtimes?

Then decide how to deal with the problem. Often this means spending more time at meals gently encouraging the child to eat.

Below are some suggestions on how to do this. It is very important to supervise feeding from the time children start complementary foods until they are two to three years old, or if a child is ill.

Based on information from Child Health Dialogue Issue 9 1997, Complementary Feeding: family foods for breast-fed children (WHO 2000) and Nutrition for Developing Countries (Oxford University Press 1992). Ann Burgess is a nutrition consultant with many years experience in East Africa. E-mail: annburgess@sol.co.uk

Encouraging healthy children to eat

  • Make mealtimes happy times. Encourage children by talking to them, telling them how good the food is and how well they are eating.
  • Play games to persuade children to eat. For example, pretend to feed a doll or pet.
  • Do not hurry children. They may eat a bit, play a bit, and then eat again. Offer a few more spoonfuls at the end of a meal.
  • Feed with the rest of the family but give children their own plates so they get their share of the food.
  • Cut food into pieces that children can hold, and provide spoons for soft foods. Young children like to feed themselves but are messy eaters. Carers must make sure the food eventually reaches the mouth.
  • Give a variety of good foods that children like. Avoid salty or spicy foods.
  • Mix foods together if a child picks out their favourite foods.
  • Make sure children are not thirsty. Thirsty children eat less. But do not fill up their stomachs with too much drink before or during the meal.
  • Feed children when they are hungry. Do not wait until children are too tired to eat.
  • Never force-feed. This increases stress and decreases appetite. If children refuse food, take it away and offer it later. A child may really dislike a particular food. Provided they are eating a variety of other foods do not force them to eat.
  • Give special love and attention if children are unhappy.

Encouraging sick children to eat

  • Make children clean and comfortable before feeding. For example, clean their mouth and nose.
  • Give small meals that are easy to eat and that children like.
  • Feed more frequently – perhaps every two hours.
  • Give plenty to drink, especially if a child has diarrhoea or fever.
  • Feed them on the lap of their favourite carer and gently encourage them to eat.

When children recover, they continue to need loving supervision to make sure they eat extra food and regain lost weight.