3 year old not eating

Will a 3 year old starve themselves?

Almost every day in my job I work with young people who have issues around eating. Those young people have extreme conditions such as anorexia. It leads them to lose weight and experience serious health complications. it can be a very stressful job at times watching those young people struggle with something everyone takes for granted. It will stay with me for the rest of my life. Issues with eating start in our toddler years, it’s important to set our 3 year olds on the right path now. Of course, only a small amount of children will develop serious eating disorders, but every single one is one too many. So to answer the question, will a 3 year old starve themselves?

No, A healthy and developmentally normal 3 year old who is a picky eater will not starve themselves. All 3 year olds go through a phase of picky eating which can be difficult for parents. It can feel like your 3 year old isn’t getting enough calories. After that first year the weight gain that toddlers experience slows down. This leads to a reduction of their appetite as they need fewer calories. The information in this article has been reviewed by a registered nurse.

It’s scary when a 3 year old stops eating, as parents one of our main drive is to make sure our children are adequately fed. Nobody likes to see their child go hungry even if they’ve been sent to their room without any supper.

There are exceptions to this picky eating rule and if you feel like your child is rapidly losing weight due to a resistance to eating it may be beneficial to seek professional advice. A 3 year old who find meal times extremely stressful could end up losing weight. Please don’t confuse this with a typical toddler who is going through a very normal stage of picky eating. I have done the research to help you through this difficult time, so read on and find out how to deal with a 3 year old who seems like they are starving themselves.

Picky Eaters.

Why won’t my 3 year old eat?

There are many reasons why a child at 3 years old refuses to eat. It can be extremely frustrating as a parent trying to feed your child while they’re in this phase. You can end up spending hours in the day just trying to get them to eat even a small plate of food. I know it can feel like a battle, unfortunately your child can sense this too. That’s why it’s important to get to the bottom of the problem without stressing yourself or your child in the process. Let’s look at some of the reasons why your 3 year old may not be eating as well as you think they should:

  1. Your child is ill: The reason for your child’s loss of appetite could be as simple as them feeling a little under the weather. Just as we do when we are ill, our appetite reduces. This is probably due to the body trying to conserve energy by diverting it away from your gut and using it to help fight off any illness. This reason for the loss of appetite should be short lived, if their appetite does not return after their illness is over then this could be cause for concern and time to seek professional advice.
  1. They are a picky eater: Your three year old might be going through a phase of picky eating. It’s common in toddlers around 2 and 3 to be more fussy about the foods that they are eating. This can lead to a reduction of the amount that they eat throughout the day. Your 3 year old sense of taste is different to ours, theirs is much more sensitive to new foods. What may taste bland to us could taste wildly different to them.
  1. They could be overtired: We have all experienced overtiredness in our 3 year olds. the mood that they can get themselves into can be very frustrating, refusing to settle even for their favourite things.  As 3 year olds they don’t yet have the capacity to ration their energy throughout the day. This means they can get excited and then crash, then it’s up to us to pick up the pieces. If this coincides with mealtimes then you can guess just how much your 3 year old will want to eat (very little!).
  1. Pressure from parents to eat: As parents we know how important it is to get good nutrition and we want to pass that on to our children. Unfortunately as well meaning as we are, we can also pass on our emotions to them. If a child is struggling to eat this may put pressure on us as parents to make sure they do. Then we can accidentally transfer this pressure onto them.  Children are very sensitive to our emotions, much more than we give them credit for. This pressure around meal times that they pick up can stay with them and they may develop an aversion or difficulty around these situations.
  1. Grazing throughout the day: If your child refuses to fill up at mealtimes, sometimes we need to look at the day as a whole.  If they are eating a lot of snacks but in between meals they may be filling up on calories. Then when it comes to the meals  later in the day, they might seem less hungry. Some snacks can have a lot of hidden calories of which as parents we are not aware of. Even juices or fizzy sodas can contribute a large amount of hidden calories each day to your 3 year olds diet.
  1. The eating environment: The environment within which your child eats can play a part in their enjoyment of the meal.  If their surroundings are busy and noisy, it means they have a lot of distractions from their food. If their favourite toys are in eyesight,  their excitement may make their minds wonder from the task in hand.
  1. Food allergies: Your child could have an undiagnosed food allergy, or even just an intolerance. If it’s a common one, just think of how this could impact their enjoyment of eating. If you had a stomach ache after every meal you would probably want to eat less too. Some of these allergies / intolerances can develop through childhood and become more pronounced, seemingly coming from nowhere.
  1. Lack of variety: Sometimes a lack of variety of food can make it seem like your child is not eating enough. At this stage in their lives children are still discovering the world,  experiences that are normal to us can be extremely stimulating to them. This may lead them to stick to their favourite foods. They will however gradually introduce new foods if their development progresses normally, although this may seem slow to us it is completely normal for them.
  1. Texture sensitivity: Children like adults are not only sensitive to the taste of foods,  they can also be sensitive to the texture. Slimy mushrooms, rubbery vegetables and  soggy foods can make even adults turn their noses up. When this is combined with the fact that those foods are completely new to our 3 year olds, this can make a child look picky.
New tastes and textures.

Will kids grow out of picky eating?

Picky eating for children around 2 to 3 years old is common. Most children over the coming years will grow out of this. That’s not to say that there aren’t a smaller percentage of children who will really struggle with eating throughout the coming years. The best thing you can do is to try and help your child through this phase by using proven strategies. If you feel your child is really struggling and this lasts for a long period of time or they start to lose weight on a regular basis then you should consult a medical professional for further advice.

If children who have more severe eating problems now, are then left to their own devices for a long period of time this may make the job harder in later years to reverse their habits as they become set in their ways. If you feel like your child has a bigger issue than just picky eating, don’t delay and seek professional medical advice.

How can I get my 3 year old to eat more?

  • Trust your child: Sometimes children just need the time to work through their issues with eating. It may just be a slower than normal acceptance of new tastes, smells and textures. Obviously we can’t give them unlimited time as it could impact on their health, but we shouldn’t always rush to interfere.
  • The body has a powerful natural drive: Your 3 year olds body will do everything in its power to ensure that they are getting the right amount of calories in their diet to fuel their busy days. Our bodies have evolved over many thousands of years and these inbuilt drives to thrive are strong, in most cases they can be counted on to nudge our children in the right direction, even if it takes a little longer for some.
  • Limit the snacks: Snacks can interfere with your child’s normal and healthy meals. Allow them two healthy snacks a day (hopefully of fruit / vegetables). Then concentrate on making their meals as healthy, fun and nutritious as you can.
  • Make it water not juice or soda: Limit the amount of juice and soda your child drinks through the day. They can easily get through a couple of nutritionally empty and calorie full drinks every day if they are thirsty and on the go. Change them to water, then you can make sure your child gets their calories from meals rather than sugary drinks.
  • Make mealtimes fun: You need to diffuse the pressure around mealtimes. Kids pick up on this and it can change their attitudes towards food without you realising. Think positively and make it a point to stop discussing how much they aren’t eating. Let the food be fun and interesting for them. Make sure they have some of their favourites on offer too. Mealtimes should be a relaxing family time, free from distractions and pressure. Don’t forget to take the pressure away from yourself as well!