A national survey about fussy eaters* has revealed many children who have been labelled as ‘picky’ may actually show signs of neophobia.
Never heard of neophobia? Let us explain. Firstly, it’s a good concept to understand if you’re fighting the never-ending battle of being parent to a picky eater.
And secondly, stay calm mum, you do not need to panic.
Having a picky or fussy eater can manifest in extreme feelings far more than being frustrated or annoyed. Parents of fussy eaters can feel stressed, anxious and emotionally drained at mealtimes. While this won’t make you feel personally any better if you’re dealing with the same situation, there’s definitely some reassurance that you’re not alone.
67% of parents surveyed suggested that their child has a fear of trying new foods. And that’s why its important that you know about neophobia. Whether your child is on the ‘just frustratingly picky’ side of this syndrome or actually neophobic there’s valuable information for everyone to learn!
What is neophobia?
Neophobia means a fear of the new. It comes from ancient Greek and in context of children is largely the overwhelming fear of new or unfamiliar foods. Before you write this off as mumbo jumbo, it’s actually a development stage in toddlerhood which can linger longer than expected.
Remember your 8-month old who happily shovelled everything into their mouth? Then by 13-month’s old they started turning their nose up at everything? (Including the thing they loved yesterday?) Well, this is the neophobic food stage. It commonly lasts from about three until seven years old.
If you’re dealing with a much older child who’s still shunning anything but chicken nuggets and white bread, it’s likely they haven’t evolved beyond their younger food psyche. And they could actually be neophobic.
Could my child be neophobic? What are the signs?
Minor food neophobia is common in early childhood and is an expected part of child development. Food aversions normally minimise from the age of eight or nine onwards and they usually do not persist through pre-teen years or into adulthood.
So, how do you know if your child is a picky eater or actually neophobic? Firstly consider their age and stage developmentally and then here some signs from Newbridge Health to help you decide:
- Refusal to eat new foods persisting beyond early childhood into adolescence
- Fear of new foods is overwhelming and can cause physical, psychological or emotional reactions (vomiting, gagging, tears, shaking, distress or anxiety etc)
- Food neophobia has a social impact on the child’s life – key activities such as parties and school camps are avoided because of the fear of having to eat new food
- Neophobia can be linked to but is not an exclusive characteristic of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
There is a specific Child Food Neophobia Scale (CFNS) which can assess if a child is actually neophobic. You can ask your health care professional for more information on this.
How is neophobia treated? Neophobic or not, what lessons can I learn for my fussy eater?
When treated in a clinical situation for children diagnosed with this condition, treatment strategies are varied.
Neophobia treatments can include:
- Desensitisation through exposure to new foods in a supportive way (foods are introduced slowly, patiently and looking for patterns that can minimise fears)
- Modelling behaviour where parents and other significant family members can model normal eating and positive response to new foods
- Cognitive behavioural therapy and techniques addressing the child’s internal messaging about their fear of new or unfamiliar foods
- Relaxation therapy and techniques taking the anxiety out of food and meal times
Whether your child is ‘just fussy’ or actually neophobic, many of these techniques can be modelled in the family home.
Even if your child is clinically diagnosed as neophobic it doesn’t mean anything will or needs to change. What’s positive in knowing about neophobia is that you can understand your little one better and maybe feel a little less frustrated about those endless meal time battles.
If you’re further interested in neophobia, speak to your healthcare professional. Rest assured, if you’re worried your child could be neophobic, you don’t need to be. Really, understanding this syndrome is just another trick in your ‘mum’s tools to making meal times easier’!
*Fussy Eaters Survey 2019 Mum Central for Isowhey.
Despite the reason for your child’s choosey way of eating, you might want to try a few immunity boosting tricks to keep them healthy and ward off winter ills.