Toddlers’ fussy eating habits can leave their parents wanting to tear their hair out, mainly with worry that they are doing something wrong.
But those blaming themselves for their child’s refusal to eat certain foods can stop feeling so guilty because their behavior is likely to be influenced by genetics, according to a new study published Friday.
In fact, trying to pressure a toddler into eating a more varied diet can instead backfire and make them even pickier, according to Andrea Smith, a PhD student at University College London who co-led the study.
“Keeping meal times as positive as possible is the way forward,” said Smith.
Genetic influence at mealtime
Smith examined the eating habits of more than 1,900 pairs of 16-month-old twins. Specifically, she explored both the tendency of the toddlers to be highly selective about the textures, taste and smell of foods they are willing to eat (which she calls “food fussiness”) and their refusal to try new food (“food neophobia”).
When combined with questionnaires completed by their parents, the team investigated how genes and the home environment, such as parental behavior, play a role in a child’s attitude to food. They found “significant genetic influence on food fussiness and food neophobia during early life,” said Smith.
Genetics were to blame for 46% of instances of food fussiness and 58% of refusals to try new food.
The use of identical twins (who share 100% of their genes) and non-identical twins (who share 50% of them) helped establish the significance of genetics compared with other factors.
Good news for parents
The news was welcomed by Jo Wheatley, associate editor of the Netmums parenting forum.
“A lot of our mums say they feel guilty if they have a child with fussy eating habits,” Wheatley told CNN. “They feel at fault for not having done enough to help their child be more accepting of new foods.”
Wheatley added that the research “goes to show that your child’s (genetic) make-up plays a huge factor in whether they will embrace new tastes readily or not.”
Other factors for fussiness included the way parents handled mealtimes and whether or not they tried to coerce children into eating.
“When mealtimes tend to be negative it makes the child tense and those fussy tendencies become stronger,” said Smith. “Coercing them into eating also exacerbates these tendencies.”
Recent posts on Netmums show just how anxious parents of fussy eaters get over the issue.
Kerri — a mother of a 17-month-old — posted: “My little one often refuses to eat his lunch or dinner and I’m starting to worry he will never try anything new.”
She said her child “often goes into hysterics just at the sight of a plate of food.”
Another mother, Kayleigh, wrote: “My three-year-old daughter is nowhere near eating enough daily. I don’t know what to do.” The mother added, “I’m constantly offering her food,” but her daughter tells her, “I’m not hungry.”
Dr. Sam Wass, a developmental psychologist at the University of East London, said fussy eating can be influenced by a range of factors, including a child’s desire to exert control, a more general fear of novelty, or a high level of sensitivity to different textures and smells.
Starting on the right track
What a child eats during the period he or she is weaned also plays a role. Explaining how parents can avoid turning their baby into a toddler who is fussy about food, Dr. Alastair Sutcliffe, a pediatric specialist at UCL, said “inappropriate feeding during weaning” was generally the cause of the problem.
He said some parents make the mistake of giving too much sweet food to babies being weaned. He recommended that they should start their babies off on a good, varied diet of foods with a range of tastes rather than starting with anything too sweet, and make sure they get enough nutrients.
He said serious health problems stemming from fussy eating are rare, although it can lead to constipation or anemia.
“As long as the diet the child has consists of things that have enough nutrients, even it it’s quite a narrow diet, then that’s not harmful. Fiber and iron are important,” he said.
Siobhan Freegard, founder of video parenting site ChannelMum.com also offered some words of advice.
”The key to overcoming fussy eating is to offer, encourage but not force. Make mealtimes fun and include lots of different types of food which you and the rest of the family eat without making a fuss – and show you enjoy them,” she said.
“Eventually toddler curiosity will overcome any anxiety and your child will try it — but be patient,” she added.