Your Child’s Appetite Has Changed: When to Worry

Health & Wellness |


Child Not Eating Web

How can you tell whether it’s just a normal part of growing up or cause for concern?

Like you, your child experiences natural ebbs and flows in their appetite. One day, they’re scarfing down everything in sight, the next they’re barely making a dent in dinner. But how can you tell whether it’s just a normal part of growing up or cause for concern? Danielle Wiese, MD, pediatrician at Riley Children’s Health, offers the following advice.

Your child’s appetite has increased

A growth spurt could be the reason why your kid has been asking for seconds lately. These bursts of height and/or weight can make children extra hungry and also crankier than normal.

In younger children aged 15 to 24 months, repeated requests for more food may be less about hunger and more about putting their newfound knowledge to good use. “Children that age really like the cause and effect of asking for a food and then being presented with it, or the power of being able to get something by requesting it,” Dr. Wiese says. “So they may start asking for more snacks more frequently.”

But don’t be so quick to always dole out more food—filling up on snacks means kids are less hungry come meal time. Dr. Wiese’s advice? Outside of snack time, keep the kitchen “closed.”

Your child’s appetite has decreased

It can be difficult to watch your child push food around on the plate but barely put any in their mouth, but keep in mind there are several possible reasons for a temporary decline in appetite. Illness, congestion, and constipation are common ones. “Don’t stress if they don’t eat much when they’re sick,” Dr. Wiese says. “The main thing to focus on is hydration.”

Developmental milestones can also play a role in a less-than-ravenous appetite. When babies began walking or running, for example, they often prefer playing and moving around to sitting down and eating. Kids around 2 or 3 years of age also eschew meal time as a way to assert their independence. “They like being in charge and sometimes get picky because they like the feeling of control in deciding what they will or will not eat,” she explains. To encourage your child to eat more at mealtime, Dr. Wiese suggests the following:

  • Be sure to include at least one thing you can reasonably expect your child to eat at meal time.
  • Encourage a “no thank-you bite.” This is where they try one bite of something and, if they don’t like it, they don’t have to eat the rest.
  • Keep offering foods they don’t “like.” Kids are often reticent to eat new foods, so offering it regularly helps it become more familiar.
  • Ensure all members of the family are seated at the table for the entire meal. “This encourages children who are ‘too busy to eat’ to sit still and try a few more bites,” she says.
  • Keep books, toys, and other distractions away from the table so everyone can focus on the meal.
  • It may be tempting, but don’t offer other foods to make up for what they didn’t eat (read: no jelly sandwich if they didn’t want tonight’s baked chicken).

“If the child chooses not to eat it, that’s his/her decision,” Dr. Wiese explains. “Don’t teach them to fear hunger. They will have a natural consequence of hunger later if they choose not to eat dinner.”

When to call the pediatrician

Of course, sometimes a change in appetite is a sign of something more serious. Call your pediatrician if your child has any of the following symptoms:

  • Abdominal pain with eating
  • Weight loss or poor weight gain
  • Decrease in energy
  • Vomiting, shortness of breath, cough, facial swelling, or rash after eating. These could be a sign of an allergic reaction.

-- By Bonnie Vengrow