Study explores parents' struggle with children's avid eating behaviors

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In a recent study published in the journal Appetite, researchers explored parents' experiences feeding children with avid eating behavior and identified key challenges and strategies.

Avid eating behaviors in children are linked to overweight and obesity, and understanding parental experiences and strategies can inform tailored interventions to support healthy eating habits in children displaying such behaviors.

Study: Examining parents’ experiences and challenges of feeding preschool children with avid eating behaviour. Image Credit: Tom Burlison / ShutterstockStudy: Examining parents’ experiences and challenges of feeding preschool children with avid eating behaviour. Image Credit: Tom Burlison / Shutterstock

Background

Researchers have emphasized the importance of understanding children's eating behavioral patterns rather than focusing solely on individual behaviors.

Studies utilizing Latent Profile Analysis have identified distinct eating profiles among preschoolers. These avid eating profiles are characterized by heightened food responsiveness, food enjoyment, emotional overeating, low levels of food fussiness, weaker sensitivity to satiety cues, and faster eating.

Genetics significantly influences appetitive traits, with some traits being somewhat too heritable. The interactions between environmental and genetic factors contribute to eating behavioral expression and the risk of obesity.

Parental feeding practices significantly shape children's eating behaviors, with coercive control, structure, and autonomy support being key domains. Qualitative research highlights the challenges parents face in managing feeding interactions with children, particularly those with obesity.

Specific feeding practices have been linked to appetitive traits associated with avid eating profiles, indicating the importance of understanding and addressing these behaviors early in childhood to mitigate the risk of obesity.

About the study

The study, part of the Appetite in Preschoolers: Producing Evidence for Tailoring Interventions Effectively (APPETItE) program, examined parents' experiences feeding preschoolers with avid eating behavior.

It followed pre-registration and qualitative research reporting guidelines. Parents of 3-5-year-olds with avid eating profiles were recruited, with 15 participating.

Data on demographics, food security, and eating behaviors were collected. Interviews were conducted over video calls, and the experiences and challenges of feeding were explored.

Thematic analysis was used to analyze transcripts inductively, prioritizing parents' experiences. Regular discussions ensured rigor, and reflexivity was maintained throughout the analysis process.

Themes were developed iteratively following Braun and Clarke's six-step process, ensuring systematic and rigorous analysis. The study contributes to understanding feeding practices for children with avid eating behavior.

Findings

The study identified four core themes regarding parents' experiences feeding preschoolers with avid eating behavior.

The first theme pertained to the children's insatiable hunger, described by parents as continuous requests for food. While some parents accepted this behavior as part of their child's personality, others found it concerning.

Despite frequent eating, children's satiety responsiveness varied, with some showing reasonable control over food intake while others lacked a 'stop button.'

Another emergent theme was parenthood as a duty – parents felt responsible for providing sufficient food for their children, aiming to keep them full. They also recognized the importance of limiting unhealthy foods, using various strategies to manage their child's food intake, often focusing on health concerns and setting boundaries.

Parents aim to instill healthy lifelong eating habits in their children, provide balanced diets, and educate them about food's impact on health. They monitored food consumption throughout the day, offering healthier alternatives and encouraging autonomy over food choices.

Respondents also spoke of the need to 'pick their battles'. Parents navigated feeding challenges by establishing rules around eating occasions and using coercive feeding practices to manage situations of personal burden.

While routines were beneficial, parents also employed flexible approaches, allowing some autonomy over food decisions. Coercive strategies, such as using food as a reward or to manage emotions, were used to ease parenting burdens, though some parents expressed guilt over these practices.

Conclusions

The study explored parents' experiences of feeding preschool children with avid eating behavior, highlighting challenges, strategies used, and perceived effectiveness. Avid eating behavior was characterized by high food enjoyment, responsiveness, and low food fussiness.

Parents faced challenges discerning genuine hunger due to children's responsiveness to food cues. To nurture positive dietary habits, they employed feeding strategies encompassing control, structure, and autonomy support.

Notably, an authoritative feeding approach, combining control with warmth and responsiveness, was effective. However, some parents resorted to emotional feeding and using food as a reward, potentially exacerbating avid eating behavior.

Implications include the importance of tailored interventions targeting parental feeding practices to support children's healthy eating behavior. The study underscores the need to balance monitoring food consumption with allowing autonomy and avoiding restrictive practices.

However, the sample's lack of diversity and potential self-selection bias limit generalizability. While the study offers rich insights into managing avid eating behavior, further research, including objective measures like body mass index, is necessary. Despite strengths like detailed qualitative data, the limitations of subjectivity and contextual influences must be acknowledged.

In conclusion, the study sheds light on the intricate dynamics of feeding children with avid eating behavior, advocating for nuanced, responsive feeding approaches to foster healthy eating habits.

Journal reference:
  • Examining parents' experiences and challenges of feeding preschool children with avid eating behaviour. Edwards, K.L., Blissett, J., Croker, H., Farrow, C., Herle, M., Kininmonth, A., Llewellyn, C., Pickard, A., Haycraft, E. Appetite (2024). DOI: 10.1016/j.appet.2024.107372,https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195666324001739
Priyanjana Pramanik

Written by

Priyanjana Pramanik

Priyanjana Pramanik is a writer based in Kolkata, India, with an academic background in Wildlife Biology and economics. She has experience in teaching, science writing, and mangrove ecology. Priyanjana holds Masters in Wildlife Biology and Conservation (National Centre of Biological Sciences, 2022) and Economics (Tufts University, 2018). In between master's degrees, she was a researcher in the field of public health policy, focusing on improving maternal and child health outcomes in South Asia. She is passionate about science communication and enabling biodiversity to thrive alongside people. The fieldwork for her second master's was in the mangrove forests of Eastern India, where she studied the complex relationships between humans, mangrove fauna, and seedling growth.

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