This post was updated on October 27, 2019.
When your baby is not eating it can be very stressful. Learn about 5 common reasons your baby refuses to eat and how you can help.
Why is My Baby Refusing to Eat?
Your baby’s not eating. She ate yesterday. And the day before. But, today, she’s not having food. What’s going on?
One of the most worrisome issues I see new parents face is when their baby refuses to eat. From being sick to being extra sensitive to texture in food, there are several reason why babies refuse food.
Based on years of working with infants and their parents, I share some of the most common reasons your baby won’t eat.
Should I Worry My Baby Not Eating?
When your baby won’t eat, it can be a temporary thing, or it can develop into a concerning pattern.
Many babies have a good appetite in the first year or two of life. They grow at a rapid pace. Their bodies lengthen and they gain weight.
Even their brains are getting bigger and learning is taking off at quite a clip. All of this growth and development takes energy. As a result, babies generally have a good appetite and a natural drive to eat.
Yet, sometimes babies just won’t eat as well as expected, or as well as they used to. You’ll need to discern whether this is a temporary phase, or a pattern that’s developing.
Most babies who are in a temporary food refusal phase will show interest in eating and get back on track within a meal or two.
If your baby is settling into a pattern of not eating, he may need more help. If he is losing or not gaining weight, appears dehydrated, or is regressing to the bottle and not regaining interest in eating, then it’s time to see the doctor.
5 Reasons Your Baby Won’t Eat
I’ve seen many babies who won’t eat in my career as a pediatric nutritionist. Often, by the time I see them, they are in a pattern of not eating and their growth is faltering.
When we get to the root of the challenges, several things have come together to create the issue. In other words, it’s usually not one thing, but a few things that have created the “perfect storm.”
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#1: Your Baby is Constipated
When babies transition from a liquid diet and start to eat solid foods, constipation can set in. Liquids such as breast milk or infant formula are fairly easy to digest and absorb in the intestines. Add in solid food and the gastrointestinal tract has to do more work. This can slow things down.
I had a similar experience with one of my kids. When my first born transitioned from breast milk to solids, we had a heck of a time with constipation. In part, her digestive system was getting used to solids and a new baby feeding schedule.
When a child is constipated, it can cause a feeling of fullness. If the intestinal tract is full of stool, the stomach may fill up, and this may lead to a lower appetite and less eating.
You can help your baby if he’s constipated with natural laxatives found in food, but take care to use only those that are appropriate for your baby. Also, as your baby grows, you’ll want to incorporate more fiber into her diet.
#2: Your Baby is Bored with Food
Recently, I met a child who, at the age of 22 months, was still eating baby food. You could say by this point, he was hooked on smooth purees and was very disinterested in textured food other than crunchy crackers and cereals. He was also delayed in his self-feeding skills.
Pureed foods are great and many babies love them. Some babies love them too much, getting hooked on them. Others don’t get challenged with more texture, receiving “safe” purees and familiar flavors.
After you introduce solids, and by 7 months, most babies should be moving on to more texture, flavor and food experiences. In other words, this is the typical age for an upgrade.
Babies and young toddlers are naturally curious. They want to explore and try new foods. Holding them back when they are developmentally ready to move on can delay their overall developmental progress, including language skills, self-confidence and of course, nutrition.
One study showed that children who didn’t move on to more textured foods like chopped table food and finger foods by 9 months showed significant picky eating later on at 7 years of age.
If your baby is refusing purees and spoon-feeding, or stuck on baby food pouches, he may be bored with food. Skip to chopped table foods or try a baby led weaning approach, instead. Boredom may be a sign your baby needs more texture, flavors, and more autonomy with self-feeding.
#3: Your Baby is in Pain
Teething is a common culprit when your baby won’t eat. His mouth hurts. But there are other reasons for pain that may be contributing to why your baby’s refusing to eat.
An illness involving a sore throat or ear pain may cause short-term food refusal.
Reflux (a condition where baby’s stomach acids creep up into the esophagus) can cause pain and impede interest in eating. If this is chronic, your baby may associate pain with eating and develop a pattern of disinterest.
Colic and other digestive problems including gas, cramping or other symptoms can be problematic. Food allergies or intolerances such as esophageal esophagitis, (EoE), oral allergy syndrome (OAS) or a food allergy to one of the Big 8 (ie, milk, egg, wheat, etc) can cause pain, discomfort and reduce food intake.
An acute illness like a cold can turn any baby off from eating. Most babies will resume eating when the illness passes. If you suspect a more involved, underlying medical condition is the root of your baby not eating, see your doctor.
#4: Negative Feeding Practices
Feeding should always be a positive experience, for any child, at any age. When it’s not positive, young children can make negative associations with eating.
For example, if your child is eating with a baby-led weaning approach and is gagging frequently, this could be negative for him. The same goes for spoon-feeding your baby. If you force bites of food when your baby is full and doesn’t want any more, you could trigger a negative association with coming to the highchair to eat.
While most babies will recover from minor incidents like gagging, some babies who are more sensitive to their environment, transitions and changes, or a have a sensitive temperament may imprint these negative experiences. You can imagine, this can influence a willingness to eat.
To avoid this situation, brush up on your feeding style and feeding practices so they are positive, connected and responsive – this will help you create a positive feeding experience for your baby. You can learn that and more in my book, The Smart Mom’s Guide to Starting Solids.
#5: Your Baby is a Late Bloomer
Babies are unique and have individual characteristics, but they all follow along a developmental scheme. Tackling the different stages of development happens at different times and reflects what we call developmental readiness.
We have stages of readiness for solids, which is a guideline to help you know when your child is ready to take the next step. For example, babies are generally ready to begin first foods around 6 months. Some are ready earlier, some are ready later.
It’s important to watch for the signs. (Read more about those here.)
Some babies are slower to show signs of readiness for solids. They simply aren’t ready yet. Kind of like my late readers! No matter how much we practiced our reading skills, they weren’t early readers. They learned on their own time table.
Some children are poorly coordinated in their ability to chew and manipulate food in the mouth. They need more practice. Some find textures offensive and need more time and experience with them to warm up. Other babies are more sensitive to the sensory aspects of food. They may gag when they see, touch or taste food.
All of this to say, don’t fret too much if your baby is a late bloomer. Stay alert to signs of readiness and provide opportunities for more experiences with food.
One thing you can do is plop a spoonful of puree on the highchair or a spoonful of chopped food and just let your baby mess around with it. If your baby is holding or touching food, show him how to bring his hand to his mouth. Remember, keep it positive and let your baby lead. No forcing!
If your baby isn’t ready and you force it, this won’t be fun or pleasant and may lead to disinterest or your baby refusing to eat.
Get More Help if Your Baby Won’t Eat
How long should you wait to do something when your baby refuses to eat? Should you wait it out? At what point is waiting it out potentially causing more challenges down the road?
In most cases, your baby will sort things out on his own, provided you offer regular, balanced meals and snacks, have a positive feeding environment, and stay relaxed.
However, if your baby isn’t moving on to more textured food by 9 months, isn’t showing interest in eating, seems distressed with eating, or appears dehydrated or is losing weight, my recommendation is to head back in to the doctor’s office to further investigate the root issues such as a food intolerance or allergy, digestive problems, or sensory challenges.
Perhaps your baby needs a feeding evaluation, or you need a dietitian to evaluate your feeding approach including the feeding schedule, food offerings and feeding interactions.
For more resources and support in this area, check out the following materials:
Try New Food Workbook is a very helpful resource for parents who may be entering into the picky eating phase. It’s also a great way to learn how to prevent picky eating!
Listen to these podcast episodes for more inspiration!
Reasons Your Child Won’t Eat (& What You Can Do)
Written by: Jill Castle, MS, RDN
Published on: October 27, 2019
Updated on: October 27, 2019