Kids Who Won't Eat: How to Help Children with Eating Disorders

Early Eating Disorders

Talk to a doctor if your young child is showing signs of the following food issues.

Problem: Feeding disorder of infancy
Age of Onset: Birth to 12 months
What It Is: An infant refuses to eat or is unable to eat, leading to poor weight gain or significant weight loss over at least a one-month period. The cause is often an undeveloped sphincter muscle between the stomach and esophagus, or developmental delays, sensory processing disorders, or celiac disease (an autoimmune disorder that leads to an intolerance to the gluten in wheat and other grains).
Get Help: Schedule regular doctors' visits to track your child's growth. A pediatric gastroenterologist can diagnose acid reflux and prescribe medication until your baby outgrows it. Occupational and speech therapists can work with children for whom eating is unpleasant or difficult.

Problem: Pica
Age of Onset: 2 to 3 years
What It Is: As many as 30 percent of children at some point have pica, a compulsive tendency to eat nonfood items (such as dirt, paint chips, or laundry detergent) for one month or longer, beyond the baby years. Pica usually passes with age but can persist in developmentally delayed kids, who are also at higher risk for it.
Get Help: Pica can cause lead poisoning, so keep nonfood items out of reach with high shelves and childproof locks. You may want to talk to your pediatrician or a child psychologist who specializes in eating disorders.

Problem: Selective eating disorder
Age of Onset: 3 to 10 years
What It Is: A selective eater will progressively limit his diet to only a few foods. Most common in boys for reasons that remain unclear, selective eating doesn't lead to growth or health problems in most cases. There's no strong research showing that selective eaters are at risk for other eating disorders later.
Get Help: Some experts say that if your child is growing normally, it's best not to make an issue of it -- but find out whether your child should take a multivitamin and calcium supplement. A child psychologist can teach him how to try new things.

Originally published in the January 2011 issue of Parents magazine.

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