Stress over fussy eating prompts parents to pressure or reward at mealtime

Mothers report higher level of concern about long-term health consequences for fussy eaters, according to a new study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior


Philadelphia, September 17, 2018

Although fussy eating is developmentally normal and transient phase for most children, the behavior can be stressful for parents. A new study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found that concern over fussy eating prompts both mothers and fathers to use nonresponsive feeding practices such as pressuring or rewarding for eating.

“These practices can reinforce fussy eating, increase preferences for unhealthy foods, and lead to excessive weight gain,” said lead author Holly Harris, PhD, Centre for Children’s Health Research, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia. “Understanding why parents respond unproductively to fussy eating is an important step to educate on healthy feeding practices.”

This study recruited 208 mothers and fathers with children between the ages of 2-5 years from a socio-economically disadvantaged community in Queensland, Australia. Disadvantaged families are found to have higher levels of fussy eating and greater use of nonresponsive feeding practices, but there is little understanding of what situations prompt this behavior.

In addition to information about themselves, the parents scored their perceived responsibility in feeding as well as their child’s temperament. Additionally, they reported the frequency of fussy eating behavior and their feeding practices. Questions included, “When your child refuses food they usually eat, do you insist your child eat it?” and “When your child refuses food they usually eat, do you encourage eating by offering a reward other than food?” Lastly, parents indicated how frequently they were worried about their child’s fussy eating, their child not eating a balanced or varied diet, and how much food their child ate.

The study found that while both mothers’ and fathers’ reports of fussy eating were consistent, mothers reported higher levels of concern. Research indicates gender assumptions place greater responsibility for feeding and the child’s nutrition on mothers. Mothers are also more sensitive to a child’s verbal and nonverbal cues. They are therefore more distressed by the crying, tantrums, and gagging as a child refuses food. Feeding has a significant emotional component for mothers that may contribute to their using nonresponsive feeding behaviors out of concern for the child’s welfare.

“Fathers more frequently used persuasive feeding practices, but their behavior was not driven by parental concern,” said Dr. Harris. “A possible explanation may be the fathers focus on practical matters such as ending mealtime after a long day at work. Acknowledging and addressing the underlying causes for nonresponsive feeding practices used by both parents may improve responses to fussy eating.”

Dr. Harris suggests that health professionals tasked with advising parents of fussy eaters might consider providing reassurance, education, and alternative behavioral strategies to support children’s exposure to a wide variety of healthy foods.

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Notes for editors
The article is “Concern Explaining Nonresponsive Feeding: A Study of Mothers ’and Fathers’ Response to Their Child’s Fussy Eating,” by Holly A. Harris, PhD; Elena Jansen, PhD; Kimberley M. Mallan, PhD; Lynne Daniels, PhD; and Karen Thorpe, PhD (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jneb.2018.05.021). It appears in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, volume 50, issue 8 (September 2018) published by Elsevier.

Full text of the article is available to credentialed journalists upon request; contact Eileen Leahy at +1 732 238 3628 or jnebmedia@elsevier.com to obtain copies. To schedule an interview with the authors please contact Dr. Holly Harris at +61 7 3365 5419 or holly.harris@uq.edu.au.

An audio podcast featuring an interview with Dr. Holly Harris and information for journalists are located at www.jneb.org/content/podcast. Excerpts from the podcast may be reproduced by the media; contact Eileen Leahy to obtain permission.

About the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior (JNEB)
The Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior (JNEB), the official journal of the Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior (SNEB), is a refereed, scientific periodical that serves as a resource for all professionals with an interest in nutrition education and dietary/physical activity behaviors. The purpose of JNEB is to document and disseminate original research, emerging issues, and practices relevant to nutrition education and behavior worldwide and to promote healthy, sustainable food choices. It supports the society’s efforts to disseminate innovative nutrition education strategies, and communicate information on food, nutrition, and health issues to students, professionals, policy makers, targeted audiences, and the public.

The Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior features articles that provide new insights and useful findings related to nutrition education research, practice, and policy. The content areas of JNEB reflect the diverse interests of health, nutrition, education, Cooperative Extension, and other professionals working in areas related to nutrition education and behavior. As the Society's official journal, JNEB also includes occasional policy statements, issue perspectives, and member communications. www.jneb.org

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Media contact
Eileen Leahy
Elsevier
+1 732 238 3628
jnebmedia@elsevier.com