When a preschooler refuses to eat, it sets up a powerful reaction in parents. Our job is to sustain our child, and yet we have no way to control what she will or won't put in her mouth. Or do we?
Question: My 4-year old daughter recently started complaining that she cannot swallow her food. I'm not sure if this is a real physical problem, a psychological one, or if it's just an excuse so she doesn't have to eat her meals. What should we do? No amount of withholdings nor offer of rewards has had any impact. She's never been a big eater, but we could usually get in 2 - 3 meals a day. She has a new baby sister (now almost 7 months old.) Could this be some delayed reaction to her new sibling? Thanks.
From: Ladywxbee, Hudson
Yes, I'd put my money on that. But first, call your peds office and get her checked out. Even if it's not medical, she needs to trust that you take her complaints seriously and you need to rule medical possibilities out, just to be sure.
My guess, however, is that this is indeed related to her baby sister. It's not unusual for reactions to be delayed: She"s likely hit a new level of cognition and it's dawned on her, "Uh oh, this baby is not going away!" There are also other developmental reasons why a 4-year-old might refuse to eat: a way to assert independence, or a way to signal she's conflicted about her independence.
Either way, I would consider her refusal to eat as an attention-grabber. And boy, has she got your attention. Stop the swinging between withholding food and offering rewards. Stop talking about what she's eating and what she's not. Make it a non-issue between you. Caveat: That assumes she is getting minimal nourishment; your pediatrician can tell you what that is for her.
Let her know the rule in the family is that food happens at specified times: three meals a day and two snacks (or whatever) that happen at set times. I recommend the snacks coincide with two of the baby's feedings. Be clear and firm, but also kind and gentle. Don't force, don't tie the food to your love. Offer what's available. Make the meals a pleasant time, where there is conversation that involves her and a good family feeling of being together. If you can, involve her in the preparation in some way, for instance, it's her job to put the napkins on the table: "The baby can't help, she's just a baby. But you can!" At the same time, tell her explictly that you will always be there to take care of her and play with her. Repeat those words often. Also, make special time for each parent to do something fun with her each day even just for five minutes. If it's attention she's wanting, you want to find ways to give it to her without her needing to act out to get it.
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