Q&A: 20-month-olds won't eat

I seem to get more feeding questions about 20-month-olds than about anyother age. You can read some past ones here and here. I have a few in my queue right now, and all of them are similar to the following two questions.

Ammy writes:

"I need help on how to feed my 20 month old daughter.  She will only eat oatmeal, milk, graham crackers, mashed potatoes, french fries and apple sauce (and the occasional Oreo).  I am worried that she will starve herself.  I have always had a problem feeding her..except for when she nursed or had a bottle, but I just cannot get her to eat.  Everyone says that she will come around, but I don't think she will.  She is very stubborn and strong willed and I don't think it would bother her to go hungry, although, she gets very fussy.  I still try and offer her the things that we eat, but she won't, unless it is a french fry.  I have tried small pieces that she can pick up and she just throws it on the floor.  We have tried forcing it in her mouth but she spits it out, and if she swallows it, she just ends up throwing it up after 2 bites. Please help me.  I am worried about her health. Someone asked me if maybe she had a swallowing problem, but I don't think she does or she wouldn't eat cookies and graham crackers."

And Swati writes:

"I have a daughter who is 20 months old. She learns everything very quickly but one things which is biggest problem is that she doesn't eat anything on her own.

I have tried all the finger food items, juice items and even cut pieces of fruits. She just plays with it for a few minutes and then she just goes away.

Generally I feed her during the lunch and dinner time. And try if she can eat on her own during the snacks time. While I feed her, I have to involve her in stories or television to put the food in.

Please help."

This is so, so typical of this age, and I don't think either of these children have actual feeding problems. If they did, they wouldn't be eating foods with texture. Instead, it's about control, the same as it is with most things kids this age do.

They're starting to learn that they are separate from you, and that it would be possible for them to have control over what they do. But since they have very little control, because we make almost every decision for them, they have to exert control whenever they can. It's exactly what's supposed to be happening at this point, and indicates healthy and appropriate emotional development.

The most basic way to maintain control over your own body (assuming you're one-third the height and one-fifth the weight of the person making you do things)  is to refuse to put things in your mouth, or to spit them out if someone else puts them in. This explains why eating becomes the primary battleground for toddler struggles with authority.

We all lived through the '90s, so I'm sure we're all familiar with the phrase "Don't hate the playa, hate the game." While it applies well to love relationships (and the East Coast/West Coast/Dirty South Rap Wars), it also applies perfectly to feeding toddlers. You can get all upset with the struggle and feel frustrated with your kid, or you can acknowledge that your child is acting appropriately for this time in life and just stop playing the game.

If you stick with your job, which is to provide healthy foods for your child, your child can stick with his/her job, which is to decide what and how much to eat from within the foods you provide. Barring any metabolic disorders or illnesses, your child won't allow him or herself to starve, and will be more likely to eat more if you don't (seem to) care.

Since part of not showing concern for the amount your child eats is not spoon-feeding your child, switch (if you haven't already done so) to foods your child can self-feed, either with fingers or a fork (at this age they can stab with a fork far more easily than they can scoop with a spoon). IMO, you'll be saving yourself a lot of work and anxiety if you stop fixing a bunch of different special foods for your child, and just stick with what the rest of the family is eating, plus maybe a few consistent favorites that don't take much prep (grapes, baby carrots, Cheerios, string cheese, etc.).

If you're still worried that there may be something abnormal abotu your child, take comfort in the words of my pediatrician, who told me when his daughter was 22 months that "she hasn't eaten anything but plain yogurt in two months!" Three years later she's still doing fine (and has expanded her repertoire). This, too, will pass.