What to Do When Your Child Is Not Eating Anything

It Could Be Picky Eating, But It Could Be Something More Serious

Boy not eating at dinner table
I just can't do it.. Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Many parents have watched as their young child staged a hunger strike because the food served for dinner didn't pass the kid-approved taste test. But in most cases the child caves after a few hours, once his growling stomach forces him back to the table to eat the now-cold peas or green beans.

But what if this lasts longer than that?

Well, it's not normal for growing children to refuse to eat food for long periods of time.

Children in their natural state are hungry every few hours (even if they deny it at the time), and refusing to eat most likely is a sign of an underlying medical problem, as opposed to an indication of a parent-child power struggle.

If you have to coerce your child to eat with threats and bribes, something is wrong. Even if she does manage to choke down some food in the face of adult pressure, it is not normal behavior, which means you should see your pediatrician for a full evaluation.

Possible Causes for Failing to Eat

There are many reasons a child could lose all appetite and stop eating entirely (or only be able to take a very few bites). Some of these causes include:

  • A virus – A child with a normally good appetite who suddenly refuses to eat could be a child who's coming down with a stomach bug. If this is the reason, it should become obvious pretty quickly.
  • Constipation – A child who is constipated may stop eating and may be unable to explain why.
  • Eosinophilic esophigitis – This hard-to-pronounce condition is caused by a buildup of a particular type of immune system cell in your child's esophagus (potentially due to food allergies/sensitivities or acid reflux). Eosinophilic esophigitis can cause the throat to become so swollen and raw that is it extremely painful to eat.
  • Anorexia nervosa or other eating disorders – Although most people consider this a problem for teens, anorexia nervosa has been identified in children as young as six or seven.
  • Food sensitivity - Sometimes there is a food sensitivity such as celiac disease (a reaction to the protein gluten, found in wheat, barley and rye) that makes it uncomfortable or even painful for your child to eat.
  • Another underlying medical condition – Many diseases that affect the kidneys, liver, or entire body can cause a loss of appetite in children.

More About Picky Eaters and Hidden Medical Problems

Yes, it's possible your child is just being a picky eater, or holding out for chicken nuggets and fries when you're serving something much healthier.

But If your child is not eating anything at all (and the problem has continued for long enough for him to get hungry), seek help from your pediatrician, who can diagnose and treat any underlying medical issue.

Here are some other child eating problems that can fall under the label "picky eater" but which may also represent a medical problem:

Sources:

Ernsperger, Lori, Ph.D. and Tania Stegen-Hanson, OTR/L. Just Take a Bite: Easy, Effective Answers to Food Aversions and Eating Challenges. Future Horizons, Arlington, TX.

North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition. Hepatitis B Vaccine. Accessed online 1/14/2011. http://www.naspghan.org/user-assets/Documents/pdf/diseaseInfo/2008%20Revisions/Hepatitis%20B%20-%20Reviewed%20August%202008.pdf

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