Fussy eating prompts parents to pressure or reward children
It can be quite stressful when your child is a fussy eater. Many children go through this phase and refuse to eat certain foods, which is developmentally normal for young children. To manage this as a parent, it is common to use tactics and strategies that involve either pressuring your children or rewarding them to eat. But these practices can actually reinforce fussy eating, increase preference for unhealthy foods and lead to excessive weight gain.
Mothers are also sensitive to a child’s verbal and nonverbal cues and are more distressed when their child cries, gags or throws a tantrum when refusing to eat.
Researchers from Queensland University of Technology conducted a study to understand why parents respond unproductively to fussy eating in their children. The study involved 208 cohabitating mothers and fathers of young children between the ages of 2-5 from a socio-economically disadvantaged community in Queensland. There are higher levels of fussy eating among children from disadvantaged families and parents tend to use non-responsive feeding practices even more. But there is very little understanding of what prompts this behaviour.
The parents scored their perceived responsibility in feeding as well as their child’s temperament. They reported on the frequency of fussy eating behaviour and their feeding practices by asking questions such as: “When your child refuses food they usually eat, do you insist your child eat it?” and “When your child refuses food they usually eat, do you encourage eating by offering a reward other than food?” The parents also reported on their concern and how frequently they worried about their child’s fussy eating, their child not eating a balanced or varied diet and how much food their child ate.
The study found that both mothers and fathers were concerned about their child’s fussy eating. But mothers reported a higher level of concern. Research indicates that a greater responsibility for feeding and a child’s nutrition lies with mothers. Mothers are also sensitive to a child’s verbal and nonverbal cues and are more distressed when their child cries, gags or throws a tantrum when they refuse to eat. Mothers are emotionally connected to feeding their children and this may contribute to non-responsive feeding behaviours out of concern for their children. The researchers found that fathers used persuasive feeding practices more frequently but this was not driven by parental concern. The researchers explain that fathers may be focussing on more practical matters like ending mealtime after a long day at work.
Understanding why parents use non-responsive feeding practices can help health professionals advise parents on how to improve their responses to fussy eating. It can also help educate parents on alternative behaviours that can support their child’s exposure to a range of healthy foods.
Source: Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior
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