Handling a Toddler With No "Off" Switch with Food

toddler no off switch with food This week’s small bite comes from a VIP who asked: “How to handle a toddler who has no off switch with food (wants to eat all of the time, gets very angry when she is finished - even after multiple servings)?”

This is a question that’s very difficult for me to answer without completing a full in-person nutrition assessment for the child. There can be many different causes for a toddler to seemingly have no off switch with food. And the action to take as a parent (i.e. the how to handle it) differs depending on the cause.

I’ve spent lots of time considering how to respond – even contemplating not answering it at all because I don’t have all the information I need to weigh in on this particular situation. But I didn’t want to leave this VIP hanging. So I’ve decided to outline some of the possibilities of what could be happening to cause her toddler to seem to have no off switch with food. If you're concerned about your toddler not having an off switch with food, the best way for me to help you is an individual session. Click here for more details about my individual child nutrition services.

I’ll start by addressing the least likely possible causes and lead to the most probable causes of appearing to have no off switch with food.

There are some extremely rare genetic disorders, such as Prader-Willi syndrome, that include the inability to feel full. If a child has been diagnosed with one of these disorders then he/she will have a variety of needs that differ than other children and will require feeding strategies other than the strategies that I share. However, these disorders are so rare that I’m assuming this isn’t the case for the VIP who asked the question.

There is also some emerging evidence that there may be kids who don’t have any genetic disorders, but who aren’t able to feel the signals when their bodies tell them that they’re satisfied. But, it’s controversial whether or not these kids exist. As such, there aren’t ‘best practices’ for how to respond as parents.

What the scientific evidence does show is that the vast majority of kids are born knowing how to listen to their bodies to let them know if they’re hungry or full/satisfied. It’s through our culture that we learn to ignore these feelings and look to outside cues to tell us how much to eat. This is what we’re teaching when we make babies finish that last ounce of formula/breastmilk in a bottle or tell kids to “eat two more bites”.

What I often see when parents hire me to help because their toddler or preschooler won’t stop eating is that it isn’t really about the food, it’s really about the power struggle.

Many parents have a pre-conceived idea about how much their child should eat. Usually it comes from good intentions – such as wanting to avoid obesity. So they put a limit on how much their child can eat at a meal or snack. However, it’s very normal for toddlers and preschoolers to vary widely in how much they eat from day-to-day. Some days they’ll eat so such that you don’t know where they’re putting all the food. Other days they’ll eat so little that you’ll wonder how they’re surviving. This is normal. And, when adults don’t interfere with it, kids grow well and have the body shapes that nature (i.e. genetics) intends for them.

Nothing makes a child want something more than to make it taboo. Studies show that when parents restrict the amount of food that kids are allowed to eat, the kids are more likely to grow up to be obese. Developmentally, toddlers and preschoolers are striving for independence. So, by limiting food, parents are starting a battle in which their toddler/preschooler is very happy to participate.

The solution? Take the high road and refuse to engage in the battle. Allow your child to choose how much to eat. For the first while she/he’ll be so delighted to no have restrictions that she/he’ll make the incorrect choice and eat too much. But after a few times, she/he’ll realize that her/his behaviour isn’t getting a reaction from you - that there’s no fun in this game because they no longer have an opponent. And, they’ll turn back to listening to their bodies for how much food to eat and will stop when satisfied.