Having a child with a selective eating disorder is tough. I have one myself

I want to let you know that my three-year-old suffers from a selective eating disorder. For parents out there with picky eaters and problem feeders, I understand the battles you face. And I understand them well.

Despite being armed with extensive knowledge and strategies, he challenges me each and every day. He is not the textbook case for feeding therapy – his day-to-day preferences are wildly unpredictable making a step-wise plan not particularly suitable for him. And with my husband working either interstate or working late weeknights, the problem is compounded by struggling to practice what I preach – that's creating the optimal calm environment and effectively model what good eating looks like. Modern lifestyles (that many of us can't avoid) have a significant impact on raising good eaters.

While I'm doing dinner, I'm also cleaning, providing homework assistance and comfort, and acting a referee when sibling fights break out. Perfect isn't possible in this situation and something has to give. Often the kids are seated well before I am, I often sit down letting out a subconscious sigh, and lack the mental energy to engage in conversation. As a result, I feel guilt – a lot of it.

Coming back to Mr three. As a baby, he had very little interest in food. He was atypical in that he wouldn’t mouth objects – a blessing in terms of hygiene, but a curse because it hindered proper oral-motor development. Once he came around to the idea of food, he would only eat porridge, bread and bananas for what felt like an eternity.

Today, there are days he chooses not to eat lunch or dinner. There are plenty of foods he has been exposed to way more than 15 times that he still does not eat (the golden number, according to the literature, that reflects the number of exposures needed before some children will start to accept a food). Underlying reasons have been ruled out. We just need to be persistent.

But what gets me through the rough days (where I remain cool on the outside while quietly tearing my hair our inside), is thinking back – realising just how far he’s come. And while progress has been very slow, he now will eat a good range of fruits and vegetables. But it depends on the day as to which ones he'll actually eat. Occasionally he'll eat a meal with minced meat or a piece of schnitzel. And certain sauces, he'll eat too... If it looks right. He dislikes foods touching or mixed meals but I continue to work on that with him.

Overall, he’s growing (albeit on the smaller side for his age) and in good health. I take comfort in knowing that if I didn’t persevere and caved into his preferences to make my evenings and nights a whole lot easier, he wouldn’t be anywhere near where he is today and I'm pretty certain he would fit the criteria for ARFID (Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder). I then think about the continual improvements if he follows the same trajectory and I feel good about that.

He's been exploring food for a long time

I want you to keep this in mind. Feeding kids is not always easy, but progress can be made. And progress that's slow is better than no progress at all. My advice is to not let a particular day or week get to you. Be persistent, give it time, then look back.

BTW, I've just written this after a weeknight dinner, bath and bedtime routine. The kitchen has a pile of dirty dishes and I'm pretty sure my eye make-up is smudged from rubbing my eyes. So make no judgement on my writing. Done is better than perfect, right?

I want to add that if you have concerns about your child, please ask your GP for a referral to a paediatrician that has the ability to arrange a formal feeding assessment. It's important to investigate potential underlying issues to problem feeding.

Don't let them dismiss it as normal behaviour. If it's causing you worry, it's not normal.

Adaptive Nutrition | Kate Curtis BHSc. ANutr. | Specialising in nutrition for women & children |  Help for picky eaters and problem feeders

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