Top tips for parents: Managing feeding for young children

This is the first in a short series of four blog posts over the next few weeks looking at supporting parents when they have young children. They consist of small, pragmatic tips for you in your quest to get on top of feeding, sleeping, and toilet training. Parenting isn't easy; but some tried and tested tips might help you in your quest to figure out how best to manage the situation with your children, your family, and in your home. First off, I'll talk about feeding. At the risk of telling what you have already discovered, feeding can bring up a lot of strong emotions for parents. Obviously, there is a very basic wish to feed your child and encourage her or his development. However, small children can be very fussy or poor eaters and may go through different phases of being either interested or supremely uninterested in food. Sometimes, it can simply be a matter of time and things can become better on their own. However, you might benefit from some of these ten tips to support you when you feel like things aren't going as well as they might be.

1. Try not to get into a battle over food

Do your best to ignore or minimise troublesome behaviour at meal times, even though it is hard. Try to get on with normal routines as best as you can. Getting would up can provoke your child to get into a battle with you. Not eating can be a very powerful and controlling behaviour. Your child will learn very quickly that it provokes a very strong reaction in you. It's hard, but try to stay calm and not make a fuss. Set a small goal, even if it is just one taste before the meal ends, and remember to praise them for this - however small it seems to you. If they cannot do that then leave it for now, do not give a reward (that's the praise), and regroup and try again next time.

2. Praise and encourage your child as they go along

Giving attention for the 'right' behaviour should mean that the child is less likely to need to play up to get attention for silly behaviour - like not eating. Remember, children prefer attention in this order: 1. 'Good behaviour' attention; 2. 'Bad behaviour' attention. 3. No attention. Attention for 'Bad behaviour' is preferred to no attention, and will tend to reinforce the 'bad behaviour' and make it more likely that it will be repeated in the future. Try to use 'Good behaviour' attention and  'no attention' in order to shape the behaviour you'd like to see more or less of.

3. Keep a food diary

It can be hard to get a clear idea of what children are eating over short periods of time. Keep a record of what your child eats over a longer period; two weeks to a month. You may find that overall they are eating more or getting a better balance of food than you thought.

4. Give small portions

Children may feel overwhelmed by the amount of food on their plate. By serving small portions, your child will get the reward of succeeding in the task of eating and you will feel happier too when you see that there is not masses of food left to throw away. You can always offer food to your child more often if you are worried about quantities.

5. Try not to use food as a reward

By rewarding your child's eating with 'treat foods' like ice cream for dessert, you will be making sweet foods seem even more special, and 'better' than other foods. It's fine to have ice cream and other sweet things occasionally, but beware of using them as a reward. Think of the message this sends your child. It's perhaps better to stick with non-food rewards when your child eats well. Remember how much your child values 'good behaviour' attention - praise often works wonders.

6. Use a sticker chart

Some people find it useful to use a star or sticker chart for each meal eaten well (e.g. 3 a day - one for each meal), then after so many stickers a reward be given, like a non-food treat or a special story. Over time, the amount of stickers for good eating can be extended (eg 6 stickers = a reward, 12 stickers = a reward) until stickers are no longer necessary.

7. Try to make mealtimes fun and positive

If feeding has been a long-term problem for your child, they may have very little belief in themselves as someone who can eat. They (and you) probably find mealtimes stressful and miserable. So try to make mealtimes fun and positive. Sit down (with the whole family whenever possible) in the same place each time. Do not use distractions, just focus on the task. Do not let mealtimes drag on. End after 20-30 minutes. Remember to praise your child if the achieved the goal you set.

8. Don't introduce lots of new foods at once

If your child is fussy, do not introduce lots of new foods at once. Start a positive eating routine with those foods that your child likes, and very gradually introduce tine amounts of non-preferred food. Psychologists have found that, on average, it takes 8-10 tastes of a previously disliked food before it is liked. If, after this time, your child still won't eat it, leave it and try again at a later stage. Try introducing something else instead. Sometimes children seem to go off foods they have previously liked. Remember that when children say, "I don't like it" what they often mean is, "I don't feel like it". Leave it, and try again a few days later.

9. Remember that children and small and resilient.

Your expectations of what they should be eating may be too big given their age. Also, they can survive on very little food and variety for some time. So, keep things in perspective. What is the worst that can happen if they do not eat this particular meal?

10. Think about why feeding is so difficult to manage

Is this an isolated area or does your child have other behaviour difficulties eg toiletting, sleeping, aggression to other children? How do you feel about their eating - useless, helpless, desperate? Don't despair - parenting is a difficult job.  Reach out for help if you find yourself continuing to struggle.