Why Parents Can Relax Over Fussy-Eating Toddlers


If your toddler obsesses over Cheetos and throws a fit when you try to introduce a sweet potato, it might not be your fault.

A study published by “The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry” suggests that there is a genetic influence on food fussiness while a child is still in the toddler stage.

“Parents consider food fussiness and food neophobia problematic because excessively fussy children may eat too little or a restricted number of foods,” the study said. “Excessive fussiness has been associated with failure to thrive.”

Andrea Smith, a student at University College London who co-led the study, said negative mealtimes, such as forcing a child to eat a food they don’t like, can only make things worse.

“Keeping mealtimes as positive as possible is the way forward,” she said. “When mealtimes tend to be negative, it makes the child tense, and those fussy tendencies become stronger. Coercing them into eating also exacerbates these tendencies.”

The study defined food fussiness as “the tendency to be highly selective about which foods one is willing to eat.” The study said food neophobia is a “closely related characteristic but specifically refers to rejection of unfamiliar food.”

The study observed that while a shared environment had a significant role in shaping food fussiness and food neophobia, some genetic heritability was suggested to be linked to the food aversions. The findings provide some relief to parents who take responsibility for their child’s picky ways.

“A lot of our mums say they feel guilty if they have a child with fussy eating habits,” Wheatley told CNN. “They feel at fault for not having done enough to help their child be more accepting of new foods.”

To figure out if there was a genetic link to food fussiness, the study observed 1,900 sets of 16-month-old twins. The parents of the twins completed a “Child Eating Behavior Questionnaire” to help better understand the children’s daily meal routines. Identical twins have been used in genetic studies before, because they share the same set of genes, helping to better determine heritability of various traits.

While some genetics might be to blame, the parents’ influence on their child’s eating habits can be a factor. How parents transition their child to the toddler stage is important, Alastair Sutcliffe, a pediatric specialist at University College London, said.

He said starting the weaning process on wide variety of foods can help, instead of making the common mistake of giving a child too many sweet foods. He said health problems like constipation or anemia can stem from food aversions, but it isn’t common.

“As long as the diet the child has consists of things that have enough nutrients, even if it’s quite a narrow diet, then that’s not harmful. Fiber and iron are important,” he said.

The study supports parents’ roles during mealtimes and said behavior changes led by the parent can decrease both food fussiness and food neophobia. Siobhan Freegard, founder of the parenting website ChannelMum.com, said positivity is the solution to pushing through a child’s food aversions.

‎”The key to overcoming fussy eating is to offer, encourage but not force. Make mealtimes fun and include lots of different types of food which you and the rest of the family eat without making a fuss – and show you enjoy them,” she said. “Eventually toddler curiosity will overcome any anxiety and your child will try it – but be patient.”