A loss of appetite in children might cause worry in most parents. However, it is quite common in children aged between two and five years. Nevertheless, in some rare cases, loss of appetite may be a cause for concern. Thus, you should consult a doctor if you notice your child losing their appetite a little too often.
Read on as we tell you the possible reasons your child may be losing their appetite and give you tips on preventing it. We also give you tips on helping your children build their appetite again.
When Should You Worry?
If your child has normal weight and height (for their age), then there might not be a reason to worry, as some children with a small built might have lesser food requirements and, therefore, a lesser appetite(1). But if your child is older and the loss of appetite is sudden, accompanied by weight loss, then you may consult a pediatrician to identify the cause and correct it.
Possible Reasons For Loss Of Appetite In Children
If your child is always tired and irritable, then it might be linked to a lack of appetite. Here are a few possible reasons why children might lose their appetite:
1. Slow growth rate
Changes in growth can cause an appetite slump in children. During the first year, children grow rapidly. But after that, the growth slows down, and they may eat less food. During this period, a decline in appetite is perfectly normal. In fact, in the second year of life, children only need to put on 2.3kg and 12 cm as opposed to 7 kg and 21 cm in the first year (1).
Illness can often result in a significant loss of appetite in children. If your child is suffering from a sore throat, stomach flu, diarrhea, headache, fever, or other symptoms, then they may eat less than what they usually do (2). Thankfully, most children regain their appetite when they get better.
Stress can have many negative effects, including loss of appetite, on young children (3). If you find that your child is losing interest in eating or having a hard time sleeping, then they may be suffering from stress. To address your child’s poor appetite, you need to identify the cause of stress and alleviate it. Some common causes of stress during childhood are:
- Family issues like a death in the family, death of a pet or the birth of a sibling
- Inability to cope with academic pressure and the impractical expectations of parents
Depression could be another reason for a child’s loss of appetite. Most parents mistake depression for sadness. But sadness and depression are not the same. Feelings of sadness go away with time, but depression does not. Depression not only makes the child sad but also interferes with their normal life.
If your child shows a significant lack of interest in activities that they previously enjoyed, then they may be depressed. A change in eating habits could be a strong indicator of depression. It is advisable to seek medical advice if you are concerned (4).
5. Anorexia nervosa
Sometimes, in a bid to emulate/ copy their screen idols and for several other reasons, children develop a psychological aversion to eating. They try to go without eating for as long as possible. Even when they eat, they choose low-fat foods and later feel guilty about eating them. Genetics, brain chemical imbalances, and developmental issues can also cause anorexia nervosa.
If your child is avoiding food or exercising more than they should, while losing weight drastically, they may be suffering from anorexia nervosa. An eating disorder specialist can tell you how to help your anorexic child regain a healthy appetite (5).
If the child has been on a recent course of antibiotics, their appetite may be affected. Several other medications could also affect appetite (6).
Anemia is another possible cause of a decline in a child’s appetite (3). Children with anemia seem lethargic, tired, and irritable. If left untreated, anemia can interfere with your child’s development and school performance (7). Get a blood test done if you suspect anemia in your child.
8. Intestinal worms
Intestinal worms can cause loss of appetite in children. Worms enter into a child’s digestive system and live there as parasites, causing intestinal bleeding, loss of appetite, dysentery, etc. Deworming medicine can be obtained through your pharmacist or doctor. If you have pets, deworm them twice a year and deworm your children after the age of two at least once a year or as advised by your pediatrician (8).
In addition to the above causes, the loss of appetite in children could be due to other reasons, such as authoritative parenting, how much food the mother offers, family meals, socioeconomic status, and fear of trying new foods. (10).
How To Improve Your Child’s Appetite
Here are some natural ways to increase your child’s appetite. We have also listed a few supplements that you can use.
- Children like to snack. But these snacks should be as good as meals. Make smart food choices. For instance, give the child roasted peanuts instead of crisps and sandwiches or baked veggies instead of cookies.
- Do not allow them to snack when it is time for meals; maintain a consistent time gap between both.
- Peanuts might help in appetite-boosting and protein-building, hence consider adding more peanut-based foods to your child’s diet.
- If your child refuses to drink milk, add calcium to their diet in the form of cottage cheese, yogurt, cream, and curd. You could also use non-dairy milk if they prefer that.
- If your child has a reduced appetite, offer smaller bites of food until they start eating properly on their own. Smaller quantities might help in increasing metabolism and in turn, increase the appetite.
- Make an inventory of the nutritious foods your child likes to eat and tailor the meals to suit their tastes. When your child sees their favorite food on the plate, they are more likely to eat.
- Choose healthy, calorie-dense foods to increase weight.
- Some herbs and seasonings such as ginger, cayenne, and ginger might work as appetite stimulants. You may sauté herbs and spices in olive oil before mixing them to a meal for added flavor.
- It is believed that lemon juice, ginger, and vinegar might stimulate gastric secretions and one’s appetite (11).
- Mix greens and several other veggies to bring about a variety of colors into your child’s meal.
- Make them a smoothie with strawberries, honey, bananas, ice, and Greek yogurt to make food interesting.
- Try to introduce new foods and flavors slowly so that your child would be accustomed to their tastes.
If your child’s appetite is not back to normal, even after trying these measures, then it is best to take them to a pediatrician as there could be an underlying medical condition. Also, never punish or scold your child for not eating enough. Instead, observe their eating patterns and try to find out the cause for the decreased appetite.
Also, sometimes the child might be eating right for their age and exceeding parental expectations might cause worry in parents. So, evaluate your doubts with your child’s doctor.
With a few simple tips, you might be able to prevent the loss of appetite in children (only when there is no underlying medical condition).
Tips To Prevent Loss Of Appetite In Children
Here are some tips that might help in preventing a loss of appetite in children:
- Make the meals look interesting and a visual treat for your children.
- Do not argue with or scold the children during mealtime.
- Adjust the meal schedules so that you serve food only when your child is hungry.
- Encourage your child to make healthy food choices.
- Serve small portions at regular intervals.
- Encourage your child to be physically active.
- Do not force your child to eat if she is not hungry. Also, demanding that she finishes the food on her plate is a bad idea.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Is it normal for kids to lose their appetite?
Sometimes it is normal for children to lose their appetite without specific reasons. Not eating enough, not being hungry, or only eating if spoon-fed are common concerns of parents and caregivers related to a child’s appetite. However, there is no need for concern about appetite if your child has required energy levels and is growing at an average pace and meeting growth curves for their age (13).
2. When does a child’s appetite decrease in childhood?
Children’s appetite seems to slow down between ages one to five, and it’s normal. There won’t be rapid weight gain and growth in toddlers and preschoolers. Children only gain four to five pounds a year from age one to five. Parents can be worried since they may not notice significant weight gain as in infants that is an average of 15 pounds in a year.
When children may go without significant weight gain for three to four months, they may need fewer calories and have a poor appetite. This is called physiological anorexia, and there is nothing to worry about. However, seek a pediatrician’s advice to ensure your child is not malnourished or has other conditions (13).
3. What do I feed a child with no appetite?
Let children eat the amount of food that they need. Do not restrict or force them to eat. There is no need to feed supplements or medications to enhance appetite in children unless a pediatrician prescribes it for medical reasons. You may set regular meal and snack times and offer them healthy balanced meals. Encourage physical activities to increase appetite and avoid distractions during meals (14).
Stress, anemia, intestinal worms, or medical conditions such as anorexia nervosa could be causes of loss of appetite in children. They can negatively impact a child’s long-term development and growth. So, if your child seems to be eating less than usual, observe their eating habits and check their height and weight to see if they are within the typical range. Since children may lose their appetites for no apparent reasons, there is no need to be concerned if your child is healthy, happy, and sleeps well. However, a persistent loss of appetite necessitates medical treatment.
2. Luay Al-Nouri, Khalid Basheer; Mothers’ Perceptions of Fever in Children; Journal of Tropical Pediatrics
3. Stress in childhood; Medline Plus; US National Library of Medicine
4. Joan L Luby; Early Childhood Depression; NCBI (2011)
5. Anorexia Nervosa in Children; Johns Hopkins Medicine
6. Antibiotics-Side effects; National Health Service
7. Nancy C. Andrews; Hungry Irony; NCBI(2015)
8. Adam Easton; Intestinal worms impair child health in the Philippines; NCBI (1999)
9. Constipation; National Health Service
10. Silvia Scaglioni, et al.; Factors Influencing Children’s Eating Behaviours; NCBI (2018)
11. Jillian Stansbury; Optimizing Gastric Motility; National University of Natural Medicine
12. Kathleen Gura, and Roselle Ciccone; Drugs and AppetiteAn Overview of Appetite Stimulants in the Pediatric Patient; Research Gate