Babies have a dynamic appetite that keeps changing as they grow and develop. Some days they may eat well, while other days, they may refuse to eat. It is called an appetite slump in babies. Although appetite slumps among babies aren’t uncommon, knowing the precise cause ensures that they stay healthy.
Babies mostly experience an appetite slump due to benign reasons, such as teething, but sometimes it could be health issues, which may even put the baby at risk of undernutrition. Therefore, it is imperative that parents stay informed about the causes of a baby’s refusal to eat. This post tells you the possible reasons a baby is refusing to eat and ways to improve their appetite.
Possible Reasons For A Baby’s Refusal To Eat
Below are the various conditions and situations that could affect a baby’s appetite, causing refusal to eat(1).
- Not ready for solids: Most babies begin eating solids between four and six months of age. However, there may be instances when the baby is not yet ready to eat solids and refuses to eat instinctively. It typically happens among young babies who have just begun eating solids.
- Too many fluids: Babies have small tummies that fill pretty quickly. Thus, if a baby is frequently consuming water and other liquids, such as fruit juice, soup, and coconut water, they may refuse main meals. It is likely to be an issue in older babies who are already on solids.
- Distraction at mealtime: Babies have a short attention span, causing them to grow distracted easily. Experts recommend maintaining calm, distraction-free meal times for babies and toddlers. Media use, such as watching TV, during meals can cause faster eating and overeating due to satiety cues’ incognizance (2).
- Aversion to certain foods: Babies may prefer some foods and dislike others based on the food items’ appearance, smell, or taste. A baby may refuse to eat a food item they dislike. Some babies might refuse to eat a food item if they had a bad experience with it, such as gagging on it.
- Playing with foods: Young babies find foods with different shapes, colors, and textures attractive, and they may be more inclined to play with the food than eat it. This phase usually comes when babies begin self-feeding. The situation may come across as bothersome to parents, but most babies grow out of it eventually.
- Growth spurt and activity variation: Babies have periods of growth spurt where their appetite increases, but their appetite may slump once the spurt is over (3). In these instances, the baby may abruptly start refusing to eat. Similarly, active babies tend to eat more, but their appetite may reduce temporarily on days when they are inactive.
- Fear of feeding: Research shows babies may refuse to eat if they have experienced stress, fright, or fear while feeding. It can happen due to several reasons, such as forced feeding or accidental choking (4). Parents must practice healthy feeding habits to prevent the baby from developing negative feeding behavior.
- Teething: Some babies may experience a temporary loss of appetite when teething. It is usually due to pain caused by tender and swollen gums. Research shows that babies and toddlers may lose their appetite when specific teeth, such as canines, are coming through (5).
- Constipation: When babies transition from breast milk or formula to solids, bowel habits can change. A baby experiencing constipation due to these changes may temporarily refuse to eat. In such situations, you need to monitor changes in your baby’s bowel movements to determine the presence of constipation.
- Acid reflux: Acid reflux causes the baby to throw up what they eat. Chronic reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) may even lead to inflammation in the esophagus and pain while swallowing, causing the baby to refuse to eat (6)
- Food intolerance: Babies may have food intolerances, such as lactose intolerance and gluten intolerance (celiac disease). These could cause adverse effects, such as abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea, making a baby or toddler refuse to eat.
Beyond the above conditions, a baby may refuse to eat for miscellaneous reasons, such as when feeling sleepy, when unwell, or when they are simply not hungry. Some babies with certain physical anomalies, such as cleft palate, could be more likely to refuse to eat. It is essential to evaluate the reason behind the baby’s poor appetite to prevent undernutrition.
Tips To Help Babies Eat
Parents could consider the following points to manage a baby’s poor appetite and rekindle their interest in eating.
- Consult a pediatrician. A doctor can determine the reasons behind a baby’s refusal to eat. For instance, if a baby refuses to eat due to constipation, the doctor may suggest dietary changes to relieve constipation. Some babies who refuse to eat due to ill-health could be prescribed medication to improve appetite.
- Feed smaller amounts at a time. A baby or toddler may lose interest in eating if they are always offered large quantities of food at a time. They have tiny tummies that fill up easily. Therefore, feed smaller but frequent meals.
- Don’t force-feed a baby or toddler. Force-feeding makes the mealtime stressful, creating a negative perception about eating in the baby’s mind. Similarly, never force a toddler to finish everything on their plate. Instead, teach them to eat as much as possible, depending on their hunger and satiety cues.
- Offer healthy snacks at regular intervals. It ensures your baby gets small portions of food instead of eating large quantities at a time, causing them to refuse meals later.
- Monitor your baby’s appetite over a week or so. Sometimes, babies eat less only on some days. Eating less or refusing to eat one or two days a week shouldn’t be a concern.
- Try making meals attractive and appealing. Older babies and toddlers often need to be lured to eat food based on its presentation. You may make mealtime interesting by serving foods in appealing ways. You may also provide various finger foods, which the baby can eat and enjoy with their own hands.
- Let your child develop a taste for new foods. If your baby dislikes a specific food, don’t stop feeding it. Instead, serve it in different styles at regular intervals until your baby or toddler develops a taste for it. Research highlights that it may take ten or more exposures to a new food for an infant to accept it (2). It is good to offer new foods with familiar foods to make the baby or toddler adapt to its taste easily.
- Avoid bribing your baby to eat food. It will make them eat even when they are stuffed, which is not good for health. Also, they may consider eating food as a means to attain treats.
- Let your child play with the food but ensure that they eat some of it in between. Younger babies often play with their food, and it is their way of understanding different textures before beginning to self-feed.
- Make mealtimes happy and playful. Eat with your baby or toddler and interact with them while eating. Avoid other distractions, such as television and cell phones. Do not rush feeding the baby and let them take their time.
When To See A Doctor?
Most babies develop a healthy feeding pattern and interest in food eventually. However, if that is not the case, you may consult a pediatrician. You may also see a doctor if your baby:
- Persistently refuses food for more than a few days
- Has poor weight and height gain
- Loses weight
- Gags each time they are fed something
- Appears dehydrated and lethargic
- Cries and complains or seems to have abdominal discomfort
- Displays possible signs of infections, such as fever, vomiting, or diarrhea
- Displays signs of allergy, such as hives or facial swelling, after eating certain foods
Baby refusing to eat is a common phenomenon that is mostly benign. However, in certain instances, refusal to eat could be due to an underlying health condition. Consult a doctor if you suspect your baby’s refusal to eat is persistent or severe enough to affect their growth, development, and health.