Copyright Betty Udesen / Pear Press

Baby refusing to eat? 8 things to consider


In the midst of transitioning her baby to solid foods, a mama wrote to me with a challenging situation. At 6 months, her little boy started off eating pretty well. At 7 months, he wasn’t eating enough or was refusing to eat, to the point where he had fallen off the weight charts. She felt stuck trying to force calories into him, while knowing that experts recommend not forcing kids to eat.

She tried to remove the obstacles she saw in the way. For example, her little boy had been so eager to see what she was eating that he wasn’t eating his own food. So she stopped feeding him at the family’s meal times. He would get fussy as soon as she made him sit in his high chair; he would make faces at his purees (even his favorite one). She tried distracting him with toys, but it didn’t work. He would try to grab the spoon, and she would try to get him to stop. “Then he signals me to come closer, he kisses me on my forehead, and then after sometimes starts to cry again,” she wrote. “This goes on for an hour or two. And mostly it ends with unfinished bowl of food.”

For both of them, meal times had become miserable, an obligation.

In the picture she painted, I saw that, inadvertently, meals had less and less connection. Children struggle when they feel disconnected, research shows us, and thrive when they feel connected. Beautifully, her little one was even asking her for more closeness in his sweet kisses. So we talked about how to build more and more connection around meal times.

I know this dear mama is not alone on this issue. If your little one isn’t eating either, here are 8 tips to get you back on a better path:

1. Feed baby while the rest of your family is eating. People are social beings, and that feeling really comes out at meal times. Meals will instantly feel more enjoyable for your little ones when they are part of this family ritual — even if they don’t eat as much as you hope.

2. Get baby even closer to the table. If possible, get a high chair that allows your child to sit at the table, with her bowl on the table instead of a tray. There’s this design that clamps on or this one that slides directly up to the table. Most high chairs sit kids a little bit away from everyone else. But they want to do what everyone else is doing at dinner time, to feel part of the family. (I’ve loved having that second option. It’s so easy to clean and adjusts to last for years. As a toddler, my daughter got to feel independent by climbing into it on her own, but I also could trap–I mean, strap–her in for eating. She’s 4 1/2, and we still use it.)

3. Give baby the food that the rest of the family is eating. Purees are kind of boring, right? (And who came up with those, anyway? Interesting Atlantic interview on the history of baby food.) The dishes we tend to cook for ourselves have spices, textures, aromas, and colors that are much more interesting than purees. It’s great for babies who are starting on solids to eat real food: great for their motor control skills, their palate, their enjoyment of the meal, their nutrition, and more. Just give them smaller pieces. (No whole grapes, as these are slippery and just the right size and shape for choking.)

4. Let baby feed himself. By grabbing the spoon, baby is telling you, “I am ready to feed myself!” (Other signs of developmental readiness from Kelly Mom.) Let him use his hands. Yes, it’s messy! Bowls with a lip and long-sleeved bibs help contain the mess, along with a big mat under the high chair. (We snagged one of those big clear rolling-chair mats from my husband’s office–excellent.)

Don’t look over every bite baby takes. Put the food on his plate and tell him what each item is. Then just occasionally talk with him, smile at him, and enjoy your own food. (Look up “baby led feeding” or “baby led weaning” for more information. Oh man, I can’t tell you how nice it is to relinquish the duty of trying to get a spoon into your kid’s mouth at every meal.)

Messy baby / Copyright Meryl Schenker
Copyright Meryl Schenker

5. Yes, baby is very interested in what’s on your plate. This will help you! You can feed your child with bites from your fork. You can say, “One bite for me, one bite for you.” Around this age, baby wants to do what you do. I remember my baby would want the food on MY plate, even if she had the same food on her plate! Sometimes I would put certain foods only on my plate instead of hers, and then give her some of mine.

6. Sign language can be very helpful at this age. If you teach your baby the signs for words like “milk,” “more,” “all done,” “all gone,” etc., he will be able to communicate with you more easily. It’s such a relief! This is a great age to start. Here’s a video of a few signs (start 30 seconds in). I lay out how to teach — the method researchers use — in my book, Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science.

7. Keep breastfeeding. Solid foods can come slowly. It’s healthy for babies at 6 months old to get most of their nutrition from breast milk, and slowly transition to only solid food over the next 6-12 months. Think of this as a time for baby to experiment with the new flavors and textures of solid food — not as a time to completely replace breast milk.

8. Make sure he’s getting enough greens / fiber. Babies may cry and not want to eat if they feel gassy or constipated. I used to make these green smoothies for my daughter — an easy way to get greens. Actually, we still drink those, but now she chooses which fruits and which greens. 🙂

Whatever plan you come up with, try it for a week. Let your little one adjust, and then assess how it’s going. And please let me know what happens!

Bonus download: Kids decide how much they eat + 5 other Rules for Feeding Kids

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