How can parents help their fussy eater?


Eating Shiva

Eating Shiva (Photo credit: Mirror | imaging reality)

A few of my fellow mothers have talked to me about their children’s fussy eating habits. They have discussed their worries over their child’s weight gain and have told me that they can get quite stressed at meal times. All children have their good points and bad points but I have always felt lucky that my 3-year old son eats well. My mother-in-law can’t believe that one of his favourite foods is broccoli! So should I take the credit that he eats well? Is his lack of fussiness anything to do with my parenting style? I know that my friends who have fussy eaters and have older children who are not, say that they haven’t done anything different with their fussy eater. So what does the research say?

Research suggests that some children are naturally more picky eaters and can take longer to accept new foods than others. Sanders and colleagues (1993) compared fussy eaters with non-problem eaters by observing them at home during mealtimes. They found that the fussy eaters could be very difficult at mealtimes, for example, they would play with their food, complain about their food, refuse to eat their food, throw tantrums or regurgitate their food. However, they also found that parent of fussy eaters were more coercive in getting their children to eat food than parents of non-problem eaters.  It could be argued that parents of fussy eaters are inevitably going to pressurise their children to eat more in an effort to keep their children at a healthy weight. However, research suggests that pressurising children to eat more is counter-productive. It can lead to mealtimes becoming a battleground between children and parents. Sanders and colleagues (1993) found that the parents of the fussy eaters made significantly more negative comments at mealtimes.

Birch and colleagues (1984) found that pressurising a child to eat food by offering a reward can decrease liking for the food. Furthermore, if mealtimes are a negative experience, dislike for food increases. These findings are important because it is easy as a parent to use tactics to get your child to eat more. However, it appears feeding tactics can backfire and that it is better for parents to allow their child to completely self-regulate their food intake. Perhaps the only way parents can influence their children’s food consumption is by making mealtimes a positive experience and by enjoying healthy food in front of their children.  Galloway and colleagues (2005) found that parents who ate more fruit and vegetables themselves, had children who ate more fruit and vegetables. However, Fisher and colleagues (2002) found that parents who pressured their children to eat more fruit and vegetables, had children who actually consumed fewer fruit and vegetables. Galloway and Colleagues (2005) suggest that parents and children can influence each other in a cyclical way so that children’s initial eating style can lead to parent’s use of pressure to eat, which then leads the child to be less able to self-regulate their  food intake and so the parents add more pressure exacerbating the existing problems.

Picky eating can start early so what can parents do to stop it becoming a problem at an early stage? The research suggests that parents should take a relaxed approach. Toddlers are learning to regulate their food intake so although they may not eat much three days in a row, they will naturally make up these calories over the week. They can also find it difficult to eat at specific meal times so they should be allowed to snack on healthy food between meals. Toddlers should be encouraged to feed themselves and allowed to eat the amounts that they want so that they can learn to self-regulate their food intake. The advice is that if children do not want to eat a food, then they should be allowed not to. New food can take toddlers at least ten presentations before it is accepted. The fact that toddlers do not like to try new foods is natural and is an evolutionary mechanism designed to protect them from poisoning themselves or gastrointestinal problems (Birch, 1998). Parents just need to be patient about introducing new foods. Children will learn to eat different types of food as they observe their parents eating different types of food at mealtimes. This is why shared mealtimes is important.

My own question from looking at the research is how do you manage not restricting a child’s diet with concerns about obesity? Allen and Myers (2006) suggest that parents provide their children with an appropriate diet without being over controlling on what food their children eat. Children need to learn to self-regulate their energy intake and they actually do this better without parental intervention. However, they do recommend that parents of overweight toddlers be given weight management counselling to study the child’s food intake and activity level. They point out that children should not be encouraged to have a strict, low-calore, low-fat diet as this would not give children sufficient nutrients for growth. Fisher and Birch (1998) found that parents who restrict access to treats such as sweets, biscuits and chocolate actually have children who select and eat them more when given free access to them.

Having thought about this research, I have wondered whether I should be less controlling about my son’s food consumption. I do try to restrict my son’s chocolate intake although I have to admit without much success as he is always being given treats by grandparents and at people’s houses. I have also offered chocolate or sweets as a reward before, which I have realised I definitely shouldn’t be doing. I think the way forward is to allow him to eat as many treats as he wants when he is offered them, but to not have them at home too often. One thing that I think I have got right so far is that I have always been cautious about offering food when my son is upset as I do not want my son to associate food with comfort.

My book  ‘Psychology for Parents: Birth to teens’ is on sale as an e-book on Amazon and


How can you help your clumsy child?

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A child jumping

A child jumping (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dyspraxia is primarily a disorder of motor coordination and children with dyspraxia can be quite clumsy.  It is important that dyspraxia is identified early on so that intervention can be offered. Early intervention and identification of the disorder can prevent a child becoming frustrated at school and enable teachers to provide sympathetic support. So what are the symptoms of dyspraxia? Children with dyspraxia may have taken longer to roll, sit, crawl, walk, speak and toilet train. They can have problems with gross motor skills such as jumping and kicking a ball even when they have mastered fine motor skills such as copying letters or vice versa. They may also have problems getting dressed and using a knife and fork. School can present further challenges for a dyspraxic child as they may have difficulty concentrating and learning.

So what can a parent do to help their child with dyspraxia? Getting your child assessed is very important as early intervention is believed to be more successful. Children who are diagnosed early are likely to receive help from their teachers rather than being labelled as disruptive or attention-seeking.  Sugden and Chambers (1998) assessed the effectiveness of different types of interventions for dyspraxia such as getting children to repeat specific motor skills over and over again. They concluded that most interventions work leading to significant improvements compared with control group or pre-treatment measures. Schoenmaker et al (1994) found that clumsy children can benefit from individualised physiotherapy. However, research suggests that children can equally benefit from school-based intervention.

Parents can also help their dyspraxic child at home. For example, you can play games such as the statues game which emphasise control of movements. Physical activities can be broken down into simpler movements so that the child can learn how to carry them out step-by-step. Parents can also encourage their children to reflect on their actions, for example, they might be asked whether they think they should kick the ball with the side or the front of their foot or whether to hold their fork more or less tightly. Parents can also raise their child’s self-esteem through recognising and praising small improvements in their child’s abilities (Bowens and Smith, 1999).

Parents may feel that looking after a dyspraxic child is particularly challenging as their child may behave badly at home as a mechanism to cope with frustrations at school. Parents can seek emotional and social support from the Dyspraxic Foundation.

‘Psychology for parents: Birth to teens’ is for sale as an e-book on Amazon,, Barnes and Noble, Kobobooks and Apple ibookstore.


Should you stop your kids reading celebrity magazines?


Celebrity Eating Disorders: "Kate Moss"

Celebrity Eating Disorders: “Kate Moss” (Photo credit: tollieschmidt)

It is difficult for a parent to monitor what their children and teenagers read but I believe it is important to at least limit children’s consumption of celebrity magazines. Images in magazines such as Vogue all show images of very thin female models. Celebrity magazines such as ‘Heat’ constantly criticize celebrities for putting on weight. The celebrities in these magazines act as models for women in our society. Teenagers in particular pay attention to the fact that many celebrity role models are extremely thin. They can see that their role models are famous and rich and this may motivate them to be thin too or they may think that being thin is what is needed to be accepted. Rachael Johnston, a young woman who suffered with anorexia, has recently called for airbrushed models to be banned in glossy magazines. She has blamed the development of her anorexia on her obsession with very thin celebrities in magazines as a teenager. So what is the evidence that the media might lead to anorexia?

Fearn (1999) studied young women living on the island of Fiji. After the introduction of Western TV to the island, 74% of young Fijian women said they were ‘too big or too fat’ and eating disorders, previously unknown on the island, began to appear. Nasser (1986) compared Egyptian women studying in Cairo with similar Egyptian women studying in London. 12% of those living in London developed eating disorder symptoms, compared to 0% in Cairo. Lai (2000) found that the rate of anorexia increased for chinese residents in Hong Kong as the culture slowly became more westernised. Mumford et al. (1991) found that Arab and Asian women were more likely to develop eating disorders if they moved to the West. These studies all suggest that eating disorders develop in conjunction with Western media and the idea that ‘thin is beautiful’.

However, Eysenck and Flanagan (2000) point out that, whilst virtually all young women in the West are exposed to the media, only 3-4% of them develop an eating disorder. Furthermore, anorexia usually develops in adolescence so it may be related to fears about growing up. Other research points to family issues being responsible for anorexia and genes may also predispose a person to develop anorexia. So perhaps media images only contribute to the problem of eating disorders.

Although the media cannot be held entirely responsible for the development of eating disorders, as a parent I would still try to limit exposure to the very thin models shown in magazines. Younger and younger children are developing anorexia and any preventative measures parents can take is in my view a good thing. Other research suggests that parents should not talk about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ food too much either. Children should be taught that all food is good in the right balance.

‘Psychology for parents: Birth to teens’ is for sale as an e-book on Amazon,, Barnes and Noble, Kobobooks and Apple ibookstore.


How can I get my baby or child to sleep well?


A sleeping male baby with his arm extended

A sleeping male baby with his arm extended (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is a ongoing debate between parents and psychologists about whether crying down is harmful method for getting babies to sleep and whether it has long-term harmful psychological effects on the child. Before I discuss the research, I want to clarify what crying down means. Some people refer to crying down as just shutting the door and allowing your baby to fall asleep by itself. However, many people prefer a more gentle method of sleep-training nowadays . The term ‘crying down’ is now often used to refer to a method introduced by Dr. Ferber, where parents leave their child for increasing amounts of time e.g. 2 minutes, 4 minutes building up to 15 minutes, before going back to reassure them. This method is also referred to as extinction and controlled crying. I have to say that I used the Dr. Ferber method of controlled crying with my son when he reached 3 months old and I know that some people will disagree with my decision. However, it is important to look at the evidence when making a judgement and to understand why good sleep patterns are so important.

Touchette and colleagues (2005) found that many children who did not sleep six consecutive hours at 5 months old, still had problems at 29 months old sleeping six consecutive hours. They concluded that the ability to sleep through the night was learnt very early on and that parental behaviours could have a negative impact on a child’s ability to sleep. Some of you may argue that it is normal for babies and toddlers to have difficulties sleeping through the night.  However, other research suggests that children who have problems sleeping early on are more likely to have behavioural difficulties later. Other studies show that sleep problems affect performance at school.

The way parents deal with their children’s night-time wakings is important. Simard and colleagues (2008) found that parents who comforted their toddlers out of bed at night-time or who gave their young children (not babies) food in the middle of the night were more likely to have children with sleep problems and behavioural difficulties later on. They also concluded that co-sleeping had a negative impact on the future sleep patterns of children.

Mindell and colleagues in a study for the  National Sleep Foundation (2004) found that a late bedtime and a child falling asleep with their parent present had the most significant negative effects on sleep. A late bedtime led to children taking longer to fall asleep and sleeping for a shorter period of time. Parental presence led to children having more night wakings. Having a poor bedtime routine and having a television in the bedroom was also found to cause sleep problems.

Some of you may argue that good sleep patterns are all very well but not important relative to the possible psychological harm caused by leaving a baby to cry. Hiscock and colleagues (2008) looked at the long-term effects on both mother and child mental health of using Ferber’s graduated crying down method. They study recruited 328 mothers of 7 month old babies who reported that their child had a sleep problem. Half of the mothers were taught a sleep training method (with more mothers choosing Ferber’s controlled crying method than other sleep training methods). The other half of the mothers were placed in a control group and not taught any method. The key findings were that the mothers who had been taught a sleep training method were less likely to have depressive symptoms and by the time their children were two years  old, there were no differences in behaviour between the sleep-trained children and the non-sleep-trained children. This study suggests there are no long-term consequence of sleep-training your child. France (1992) studied the behaviour characteristics of babies who had been sleep-trained using Ferber’s extinction method. She found that the sleep-trained babies were just as secure as the control group babies at 24 months old and their tension levels and likeability scores improved.

More research still needs to be done on the subject of sleep-training and the long-term impacts. However, I would recommend looking at the ample research carried out by Mindell if you are sceptical about sleep-training.


My husband and I both read Ferber’s book on sleep-training before I had my son. At 4 months old, I decided to sleep-train my son to go to sleep and it worked reasonably well. I used a softer method than Ferber suggests and I would stay in the same room as him, patting him a few times every few minutes before sitting on a chair nearby. I also tried to reduce breast-feeding at night-time by a couple of minutes every night. In retrospect, I think my son was probably too young for sleep-training and I would probably wait until 6-months-old before starting. However, my son is a good sleeper and I think this is related to following some form of sleep-training with him. In addition, I made sure I had a Velcro black-out blind in his room that attached to the window frame to stop any light coming through at all. I would also comfort him in the morning in the dark and repeatedly put him back in his cot until 7am. Unlike many of my friends’ children, my son almost always sleeps through the night and wakes late in the morning. By 3-years-old, he would regularly wake up as late as 8 am.

I am a strong advocate of being sensitive and responsive to you child but I also think it is important to teach your child to sleep well. Winnicott said that a good-enough mother is one that  gives their child the attention they need but also allows their child to experience some frustrations. Sleep-training is hard to do as a parent and tugs at your heart-strings but I believe it has long-term benefits.


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Want to get your child to read more? Read ‘The Fortress’, a fantasy adventure story aimed at 7-10 year olds.

How to avoid sibling rivalry


A young girl kisses a baby on the cheek.

A young girl kisses a baby on the cheek. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many parents want to know how to foster good sibling relationships. So what factors affect sibling relationships? Some parenting experts suggest that age gap affects sibling relationships. However, psychological studies show that age gap between siblings is not a significant factor in whether siblings get on well or not. An age gap of 18 months to three years is linked with more intense sibling relationships but this can be positive or negative. Sibling relationships are also not affected by family structure such as how large the family is. Gender has some impact but not much. Children tend to be slightly closer to sisters than brothers.

However, the way parents treat their children is a significant factor in sibling rivalry. Siblings are much more likely to fight and resent each other if parents are not equally affectionate and responsive to their children (Brody, Stoneman, & Burke, 1987).

Stocker, Dunn and Plomin (1989) observed mothers at home with their children. They found that many mothers directed more affection, control, attention, and responsiveness to younger siblings than to older siblings. You may argue that it is normal for a mother to hug a younger child more or to be more responsive to a younger child. However, children are able to see the difference between their mother meeting the needs of a younger sibling and favouritism. So how can parents treat their children equally? Parents need to be careful in the number of positive versus negative remarks they give to each child and the amount of physical affection they show each child. Parents can also try to give their children similar amounts of attention, for example, by responding to their children’s comments or gestures in equal measure. Sharing each child’s excitement or disappointments is also important. I know that many parents may think that they already try to be as fair as possible but that it can sometimes be an impossible task. However, if parents monitor their own responses, they may be able to reduce sibling rivalry in the family.

By now you may be worried that your children’s fights are all your fault but sibling rivalry is considered a natural instinct according to Freud. It is also important to note that children’s individual characters have an impact on sibling rivalry. Brody and his colleagues (1987) found that highly active, emotionally intense children showed more negative behavior towards their siblings.

So what should parents do when siblings squabble?

The most important thing is for parents not to take sides. A common mistake is for parents to ask the older child to give in but this is not dealing with the situation fairly and can cause resentment. Children can be taught how to disagree with each other without ridiculing or hurting each other.

What should parents do if one child is more academic or sporty than the other?

Parents can reduce sibling rivalry by praising their children’s efforts rather than achievement (see my previous blog on this). Children can also be taught that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, to celebrate other people’s achievements and to win gracefully.

‘Psychology for parents: Birth to teens’ is for sale as an e-book on Amazon,, Barnes and Noble, Kobobooks and Apple ibookstore.