Stressing about your child’s picky eating habits could be doing more harm to the cause than good.
A new study published today in the Archives of Disease in Childhood has found a link between parental anxiety and depression and fussy eating in preschool-aged children. Researchers from Erasmus University Medical Center in The Netherlands found the link when mothers had anxiety or depressive symptoms during both pregnancy and the preschool period.
What’s more, it appeared to make no difference whether or not those symptoms were outwardly visible to the child. “This was irrespective of mothers’ internalising symptoms at the child’s preschool period,” study author Lisanne de Barse told SBS. “We also found indications that fathers’ anxiety and depressive symptoms might influence children’s fussy eating behaviour.”
The food fussiness scale covers children who are difficult to please with meals, display food neophobia [a refusal of new foods] and who had a limited diet variety.
To come to this conclusion, researchers analysed data from the Generation R study, which has been tracking the health and wellbeing of children born since 2002. The research is based on 4746 mother and child pairs and 4144 fathers. Parents were asked to complete questionnaires around anxiety and depression, and then again three years later.
Parents also completed another questionnaire about their child's eating habits once the child turned four. They found that by the age of three, 30 per cent of children were fussy eaters. “The food fussiness scale covers children who are difficult to please with meals, display food neophobia [a refusal of new foods] and who had a limited diet variety,” de Barse explains.
While researchers identified depressive behaviour and anxiety in parents, de Barse is quick to note that clinically significant levels were evident in less than 10 per cent of parents. “However, we found that not only severe anxiety and depression, but also milder forms of internalising problems can affect eating behaviour.”
This strongly suggests that the direction of the associations with mother’s symptoms during pregnancy is from mother to child.
So what came first – anxious parents or picky eaters? Being an observational study, researchers could make no firm conclusion around cause and effect. However, “we found that mothers’ internalising symptoms during pregnancy predicted a four-year-old’s fussy eating, irrespective of whether the mother had symptoms when the child was three years old,” de Barse says. “This strongly suggests that the direction of the associations with mother’s symptoms during pregnancy is from mother to child.”
Even though de Barse’s team found a link between parental anxiety and fussy eating, it’s important to remember that “fussy eating can be a phase of normal development.
“Other research suggests that parents should repeatedly offer their children a diversity of food items without pressuring their child to eat,” de Barse says.
And if parents are experiencing anxiety or depressive symptoms, de Barse advises “to report this to their health practitioner, because it could have an impact on themselves, but also on their child.”