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Should I Let My Toddler Go To Bed Hungry If They Refuse Food?

Portrait of crying Asian baby girl sitting on the high chair at home. Crying baby girl. Crying baby looking for attention and company
Portrait of crying Asian baby girl sitting on the high chair at home. Crying baby girl. Crying baby looking for attention and company d3sign via Getty Images

Picture this, you’ve spent an hour cooking a nutritious meal that you know your toddler loves. You’re happy because they’ve finally started to like the one thing you were worried they wouldn’t. Hell, you’ve even created an extra batch to freeze because you know time is never in your favour and once your toddler is hungry, they want it NOW.

You’re feeling great because you’ve got this parenting thing on lock!

Until one day, they refuse to eat the very food item they couldn’t wait 0.2 seconds for the previous day. Not only do they refuse their self-confessed favourite food, actually, they don’t want anything.

Unfortunately that’s my current situation with my toddler. Meal times have never been easy but my 17-month-old was eating fruits and healthier snacks so I wasn’t too worried.

But for the last few weeks my picky toddler has become even fussier when it comes to food. She’ll tell me she’s hungry from the moment she wakes up in the morning till she goes to bed in the evening.

Yet every single time I offer food, she’ll refuse it? Now, we’ll never be able to know why toddlers act the way they do for certain. But the one thing that perplexes me is that if she’s hungry yet refusing everything I offer, at what point do I stop offering alternatives?

Do I let her go to sleep hungry?

I know I’m not alone when it comes to mealtimes with toddlers, so I decided to speak with experts to help others like myself on how to deal with toddlers and their relationship with food.

Jennie Lannette Bedsworth, a licensed clinical social worker, behavioural therapist and senior contributor at Start Here Parents says: “When a stubborn child refuses their thoughtfully prepared dinner only to wail for snacks come bedtime, frustration mounts. While scoldings or punishments might seem justified to curb these behaviours, compassion better meets a youngster’s complicated psychological needs.”

She says that behind fussy food refusal there are often a mix of things. These could range from either insecurity, the need to assert control, sensory issues, or even just boredom with bland flavours.

Or, it’s a normal developmental phase!

To tackle food refusal, Jennie says to calmly explain the outcome of going to bed food-free until morning while conveying total unconditional love.

Paediatric Dietitian and Feeding Therapist Lucy Upton actually suggests to avoid offering multiple alternatives where possible.

She said: “Falling into a cycle of offering alternatives or ‘rescue meals’ can reduce the range of foods a child accepts and continue to cause power struggles at the table (especially with toddlers who are striving for independence).”

Lucy says it’s also important to normalise that toddlers can often refuse a ‘whole’ meal or snack time each day.

But she advises parents to think about meal and snack times as offering your child an opportunity to eat, rather than adding lots of pressure with the expectations we (as parents) have for them to eat.

“I also encourage parents to look back at what a toddler has eaten across the day (or the last few days so far). If an evening meal is refused (or any foods offered), a child may well have eaten to their appetite across the other meals and snack times across the day or the days before.

“Whilst it can feel like a child must be going to be hungry, they can in fact have met their body’s energy needs through foods eaten across the day already. Children are excellent at self-regulating (listening and responding to) their appetite,” she adds.

For those parents in the habit of offering alternatives, Lucy says you could start reducing or changing this at any time.

She said: “It can feel nerve-wracking, but often it’s a hugely positive step for both you and your child. If you are offering multiple alternatives, you could start with reducing this to just one or offering a supper before bed instead.

“If your child is constantly saying they want food but are refusing everything you offer them then it may mean that there is something specific that they want e.g. a preferred, ‘favourite’ or familiar food.”

Another expert, Alyssa Roberts (BS) who is a practicing psychologist says she doesn’t recommend sending kids to bed hungry.

Instead, she said parents should try to keep mealtimes positive and offer a
variety of healthy foods.

She advises: “Don’t turn it into a battle if they say no thanks. Assure them there’s always a next meal or snack coming up soon.

“Going to bed hungry once in a while is normal, but you don’t want it to become a habit. Hunger signals are still developing in young kids. Forcing them to eat or withhold food can mess up their relationship with food long-term.”

That being said, if your child does regularly refuse meals, it’s best to speak to a doctor. There may be a medical or psychological reason, like acid reflux,
sensory issues, or anxiety.

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