My child won’t eat properly and has additional needs

Any child can be a fussy eater. But refusing foods is common if your child has special educational needs or additional learning needs. Sometimes you may struggle to get them to eat. This can be stressful and difficult at times, but you can try a few different things to help support them.

If your child is a fussy eater but doesn’t have special educational needs, the causes and what tips that can help will probably be different.

Possible reasons your child won’t eat

Neurodivergent children often experience senses such as the taste, smell, sight and feel of food in a different way to other children. They may also react strongly to food and mealtimes for a variety of other reasons (like environment). This can apply if your child has autism, sensory processing disorder, executive function disorder or dyspraxia.  

Problems with eating are also common for children with global developmental delay. This is when a child doesn’t reach developmental milestones at expected times. They may take longer to learn behaviour around mealtimes than other children the same age. 

Your child might:  

  • Only want to eat with a certain spoon, fork or plate – or drink from a certain cup.  
  • Be overwhelmed and upset by smells or noises around them.  
  • Find it difficult to sit for any significant length of time to eat.  
  • Struggle to eat foods with certain textures.  
  • Find some flavours too strong or too weak.  
  • Dislike having different textures or colours on a plate at once, or combining textures (like gravy and sausages).  
  • Gravitate towards pale or beige foods.  
  • Refuse some food after a bad experience, like choking or being sick. 
  • Struggle to grip cutlery or open packets due to coordination issues.  
  • Get upset at changes in routine or how you serve food.  

      Look for patterns

      Every child reacts in their own way to feelings of unhappiness or overwhelm. Notice how your child behaves when food is around. They may cry, throw something, or become quiet. Sometimes you’ll need to wait before you try to get them to eat something. 

      Watch out for what triggers your child’s behaviour. You might want to try using a behaviour diary and a food diary to help with this.  

      Learning to spot the warning signs over time will help you think about how to take the pressure off. 

      Help your child feel relaxed

       It can help to adapt your mealtimes or what you offer your child to allow them to feel relaxed. You could:  

      • Start by putting a small amount of food on their plate and adding more if that goes well.  
      • Look at their environment – what makes them stressed and what relaxes them? 
      • Put a different food nearby and let them see you eat and enjoy it, without forcing them to have it. 
      • Make sure food isn’t touching other food on the plate or use a separate plate for new foods (if this is an issue for your child).  
      • Allow your child to sit somewhere other than the table or in another room, if this is what they’d like. 
      • Let them pick up food with their fingers if they want to – then introduce a fork bit by bit. 
      • Do activities with your child where they touch the food but don’t eat it – this can help them get used to having it on their hands. 
      • Introduce any changes to their routine bit by bit rather than sudden changes.

          Be patient

          It may feel impossible to introduce new foods and you might worry about the impact your child’s behaviour is having on their health. Try to be patient and remember that it may take time for their behaviour to change.   

          Be aware of timings and what state your child is in when you’re asking them to eat. It’s OK to change your routine or where you eat if it helps your child to try more food, even if this is different to what other families are doing. Don’t worry if something doesn’t go well. Try again the next day.  

          If you can, avoid putting pressure on them. They may pick up on any anxious feelings you have and be less likely to eat. 

          Get support

          If you’re worried about your child, speak to your GP. You may be able to ask for a referral to a dietician, who should be able to assess and treat dietary issues.  

          If your child is older, BEAT has a helpline for eating disorders. 

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          This advice was written by our experienced Parent Talk coaches. Parent Talk is a free online service for parents and carers, provided by the charity Action for Children. For more advice, message our parenting coaches with our online chat.

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