Parents Fret Over Fussy Eaters - but What Works?

By Serena Gordon

HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, Sept. 21, 2018 (HealthDay News) -- The nightly dinner battles many parents have with picky toddlers can be exhausting. Now, research suggests that either pressuring or rewarding kids to eat healthier may backfire.

"These practices can reinforce fussy eating, increase preferences for unhealthy foods, and lead to excessive weight gain," study author Holly Harris, from the Centre for Children's Health Research at Queensland University of Technology in Australia, said in a statement.

One U.S. pediatrician agreed.

"Parents who address picky eating either with coercion or bribes may be setting the child up for problems down the road," said Dr. Michael Grosso. He's chair of pediatrics at Northwell Health Huntington Hospital in New York.

In the study, the Australian scientists followed more than 200 mothers and fathers. Their kids were between the ages of 2 and 5, and the families came from a poor area of Queensland.

Parents answered questions about themselves, their children, their children's eating habits, how they responded to their child's eating patterns, and whether or not they were worried about how their child ate.

Mothers and fathers seemed to agree on whether or not a child was a fussy eater. But mothers worried more about their child's eating behavior, and they were more distressed by crying, tantrums and gagging.

The researchers suspect the mother's extra concern may be why mothers were more likely to try to bribe or pressure a child into eating. Dads also tried to pressure their kids into eating. But the researchers said it wasn't due to concern about the child's fussy eating. Instead, the researchers believe fathers may be simply trying to shorten eating struggles.

So what can parents do to ease those mealtime showdowns?

Grosso and psychologist Judy Malinowski weighed in, and both agreed it's very important for parents to understand what's normal for their child's development.

"Children go through numerous stages of development, and part of that involves a changing sense of taste. What they liked last week, they might not like this week, and it can be because of the texture, color or smell of a food," Malinowski explained. She's from Ascension Eastwood Behavioral Health in Novi, Mich.