Headstart for Life

When Your Child is More Than a Picky Eater

Hola! Welcome back Headstart readers! In my previous blog we talked about the different ways to manage problematic behaviours of our children during feeding. In case you missed it, you can find the link here.

But one question that a lot of you might be asking is, “How do I know if my child is a problem feeder and not just a picky eater?”

It is normal for children to be selective with what they want to eat. Even as adults, there are foods we like and dislike. But this does not mean we are problem feeders. So, how do we know if our children are problem feeders?

Probably one of the biggest misconceptions we have is that eating is instinctive and that no matter what happens children will eat.  They should be able to acquire it naturally, right? Wrong…

Let me guide you through…

From birth to 6 weeks…

Babies are born with reflexes that help them go through the first few months in life. These reflexes are involuntary movements that happen either spontaneously or as responses to different actions. The sucking reflex, for example, happens when the roof of a baby’s mouth is touched. The baby will begin to suck when this area is stimulated, which helps with nursing or bottle feeding. Another feeding reflex is root reflex, which happens when you stroke your baby’s cheek and she/he will turn towards you, usually looking for food. This is especially important when breastfeeding.


By 3 – 4 months…

Reflexes begin to go away. Rooting reflex should have disappeared by this age.


After 6 months…

Most reflexes disappear. By this time, children start to learn more about food. Gag responses begin to decline as babies get more familiar with food. They begin to grow teeth and they are able to accept lumpy foods.

So, is eating instinctive? The answer is NO. Eating is actually a learned behaviour. Just as children learn to eat, so can children be taught to not eat by the circumstances of their lives. Feeding problems that arise early in age may be an indication of future developmental issues.


Picky eaters or problem feeders?

Now we know that children need to learn about food before they start eating. What about those children who fail to do so?

It is normal for some children to refuse some food. Some may not even want to try new food unless they see their mothers eating it first.

Your child might be a picky eater when…

1. He/She eats less than 30 different foods.

2. He/She eats one or more foods from each type of food texture groups (i.e. soft, crunchy, chewy, lumpy, etc.)

3. He/She has one favorite food that he/she will eat consistently, then may “burn out” and not eat that food, but after 2 weeks will resume eating that food again.

4. He/She accepts new foods on their plate and willingly touch or try new foods (sometimes even reluctantly).

5. He/She usually eats different sets of food from the family but usually eats with the family.

6. Your child eats a new food after being exposed to it at least 10 times.

Children who are picky eaters usually get enough calories per day to maintain healthy weight and growth. They can be managed at home without too much difficulty. They learn to expand their food repertoire when appropriate management is implemented.


Unlike picky eating, problem feeding is not a normal development in childhood. Children who are problem feeders may have other contributing factors that affect their feeding skills such as prematurity, tube feeding, swallowing problems, respiratory issues, gastrointestinal issues including gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), food allergies or sensitivities, constipation, heart problems, early or ongoing medical or developmental problems, oral motor delays, sensory processing differences, anxiety, social-emotional/behavioral problems, and medications.

You child may be a problem feeder when…

1. He/She has a restricted range of food (usually fewer than 20 different foods).

2. He/She shows big aversive responses to a certain type of food group or particular texture (e.g. meat, vegetables, soft cubes).

3. He/She fails to progress to age- appropriate type of foods.

4. He/She cries, throw tantrums, show agression, throw food, gag or vomit when presented with new food or non – preferred food items. Mealtimes are often very unpleasant due to consistent refusal to food.

5. He/She almost always eats different foods at a meal than the rest of the family (often doesn’t eat with the family).

6. He/She has no flexibility when it comes to foods. That means he/she insists on doing the same rituals around foods and mealtimes. He/She has difficulty eating out with family in restaurants and with friends at school.


It is always a worry for parents if their children do not get proper meals. Food plays a major role in making sure they are developmentally hitting the marks expected of their age. Whether your child is a picky eater or a problem feeder there are available treatment options that can be implemented. If you are concerned with your child’s feeding, it is always best to consult a professional. At HeadStart, we offer consultation and intervention for children who may be picky eaters or problem feeders.

Hope this has been worthy of a read. If you have questions or additional information regarding this article, or you may just want to share your child’s feeding journey, let me know in the comments section below. I’d be very glad to hear from you! Until our next topic!




K.A. Toomey and E.R. Ross, When Children Won’t Eat: Picky Eaters s. Problem Feeders. Assessment and Treatment Using the SOS Approach to Feeding, 2017

Picky Eaters vs. Problem Feeders – Do You Know the Difference?  Retrieved from: https://day2dayparenting.com/dealing-picky-eater/

Problem Feeders Vs Picky Eaters  Retrieved from: http://sosapproach-conferences.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/PickyEaters-VS-Problem-Feeders.pdf

6 Signs of a Problem Feeder – Not Just a Picky Eater (2013) Retrieved from: https://www.stdavidscenter.org/problemfeeder/


"All the information on this site is for educational purposes only and does not replace the assessment and intervention of a registered speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist or any other medical or education professional."

About Jona

Jona has a passion in educating and empowering parents and families of children of all abilities to be part of the social community. She has been working with children with special needs for more than 10 years and has special involvement in the intervention of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and apraxia/dyspraxia of speech.

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