A child with access to food will never starve themselves
Ever heard that? This statement is meant to be reassuring and is often said by health professionals and lay people alike.
Here at Your Feeding Team though, we think this is an irresponsible thing to say. Some children will genuinely not eat if they don’t have access to accepted foods because they simply can’t! Non-accepted foods are too difficult for them. Apart from not being true, leaving a child without accepted foods and hoping hunger will induce them to eat, can do untold damage to their relationship with food. Here is why:
If children sit down to meals without a sense that there will be something there that they can manage, unless they are extremely confident eaters, this will make them feel stressed and anxious. Stress and anxiety shut down appetite and increase sensory sensitivity and hypervigilance.
In other words, a worried child will not be feeling the urge to eat. They will also be on the lookout for any small changes or inconsistencies in their food and will be much more likely to reject things. You know that feeling of butterflies before a job interview? Would you want to tuck into a big meal in that state?
We want children to learn that they will always find something at meals and snacks that they can manage, and we want them to learn this through experience. This is not something we teach children by telling them. Experiential learning is a gentle process that happens over time, where we just know something because it happens Every. Single. Day.
If children are not sure whether they can trust that there will be foods they can manage, if they can’t trust that they will be able to feel satisfied and full up after meals and snacks, this will erode their trust in you as food provider. They will come to the table with a question mark in their minds. Will I be able to manage today? Will I be able to feel full?
Children also need to trust their bodies. Eating because we are hungry and stopping when we are satisfied, is called self-regulated eating. It is central to a positive relationship with food. A child who doesn’t know whether they will be able to find foods they can fill up on may subconsciously be asking themselves: do I need to shut off from this hungry feeling?
We need to give children the experience of being able to cope at meals and snacks because this will help them feel like capable eaters. Feeling capable and confident is a stepping stone towards feeling curious. In turn, curiosity and confidence pave the way to intrinsically motivated food exploration. A child who sits down to a meal where all the foods are too difficult, feels like they are not up to the task of eating. They are certainly not about to try anything new.
Leaving a child hungry as a way of getting them to eat non-accepted foods, is potentially traumatising. Our urge to eat is such a central part of being human. If we don’t have that fundamental certainty that we will be able to find adequate food, this threatens our very survival. Especially for a young child who may not even understand why there is nothing that they can eat, this can be profoundly frightening.
A message to parents
If you have left your child hungry on the advice of a health professional, please don’t feel bad. Sadly, it is a culturally normal practice. When you visit your doctor, you put yourself in their hands. They are ‘the expert’ and they have the power. Almost all parents who have left their child hungry in order to get them to eat, have done so out of love and out of desperation – because they felt it was the right thing and perhaps because they could see no other way.