Can a Toddler Have an Eating Disorder?

Children as young as three years old are being hospitalized with eating disorders. The Daily Mail says that a child of three was among 600 children under 13 hospitalized for eating disorders since 2009. The German magazine Der Spiegel describes a 3-year-old girl named Klara with an eating disorder who weighs under 18 pounds. Sabine Rohde, a consultant in child and adolescent psychiatry at the University Hospital Munich Schwabing, says that diagnosing an eating disorder in a young child is “not so rare” and that, in the fifteen years that she has treated eating disorders, her patients have been getting younger and younger.

Eating disorders are psychiatric conditions; anorexia nervosa leads to death in 10 percent of cases. Cultural and societal pressures that equate being thin with beauty and self-worth have often been highlighted as causes of eating disorders, but it’s not clear how much such factors might affect a very young child. Is it possible to diagnose an eating disorder in such a young child? Might a child — a toddler — who refuses food to the point of self-starvation (i.e., to a point far beyond what would be considered “picky eating“) and who displays unusual eating behaviors (Klara will only eat when her grandmother is sitting with her) actually have a different diagnosis, such as a feeding disorder? Feeding and eating disorders in very young children can be the result of a concurrent medical condition. Tulane University’s Infant Institute notes that young children who refuse food may have post-traumatic feeding disorder or a sensory aversion to the taste, smell, sight and/or feel of certain foods.

Indeed, a recent study by researchers at Tel Aviv University suggests that such hypersensitivity in children could be an “early warning sign” of developing an obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) in adulthood. A child who is hypersensitive to certain smells or sensations, and who is yet too young to be able to verbally articulate what is bothering her or him, may develop ritualistic behaviors to “manage” their responses to their sensory discomfort. That is, the child’s seemingly abnormal behaviors around food (including not eating) may be rooted in how their nervous system processes sensory information.

Such research may shed some light on why not only a young child, but an older one, may develop unusual eating behaviors or refuse food and shift the blame for a child displaying unusual eating behaviors away from parents. Mothers in particular have often been blamed for a child developing an eating disorder. Der Spiegel emphasizes the role of Klara’s mother, who is videotaped by doctors and then has her behavior analyzed with an emphasis on how she is (wrongly) interacting with her child.

A previous generation of medical professionals blamed “refrigerator mothers” for causing their children to become autistic because the parents were emotionally “frigid” and withdrawn from their children. While the causes of autism are not yet known — research continues into genetic, environmental and biological causes — the notion that parents and in particular parents’ behavior could causes autism now seems ludicrous. More understanding of the role of biological, sensory  and other factors suggests that we need to move away from pointing the finger at parents for “causing” conditions such as eating disorders.


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Photo by andybullock77


Lisa M
Lisa Mabout a year ago


Lisa M
Lisa Mabout a year ago


Cheryl coscia
cheryl coscia4 years ago


Camilla Vaga
Camilla Vaga4 years ago


Fi T.
Past Member 4 years ago

Nothing impossible

Rita B.
Rita B.6 years ago

I think only parents who have kids that are either extremely picky eaters or have other significant eating disorders know that being a good parent is not enough when it comes to feeding all children. Those of us lucky enough not having to deal with this issue should stop critisizing and hypothesising! Just because most children will not starve themselves, doesn't mean none of them no children would. Kind of like virgins giving advice to parents on how to be good moms!!!

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson6 years ago

Wow. my son would eat chicken every day, but he does not have that option. Instill healthy eating habits in the beginning and deal with each phase of rebellion as it comes.

Demet G.
Demet G.7 years ago

Great article, remindingGelinlikler your readers that the META KEYWORDS is not used by Google search engines, to really

Summerannie Moon
Summerannie M7 years ago

When my nephew was very young and my S/inlaw worked as did my brother, she asked my 2 year old nephew what he wanted to eat. Big mistake! He always answered by yelling out excitedly CHICKEN NUGGGGGGETSSSS! She gave him nothing much else but I guess she did and there everytime I was there he ate Chicken Nuggets '' to get food into him'' I nearly died of shock. I was utterly horrified and yet when I took him out for a meal, there was no chicken nuggets in the itinerary or any junk food at all. But the time my nephew turned 14 he was quite overweight. I wonder why?

Real food is the only way to go or just have a treat junk day to appease the devil within but with explanation about why and why not. I dont eat chicken nuggets or very very rarely b/c they so full of fat and what is the white 'meat' within? Reconstituted man made stuff? This little girl now 17 is so lucky to be alive and I hope she gets taught well about nutrition. The parents gosh.... now that is another debate. Even if youre not financially heeled I am sure that when they all went to the Drs, surely??? it must have been addressed.

Quanta Kiran
Quanta Kiran7 years ago

No shit, geniuses. of course kids have eating disorders sometimes caused by physicians. i was only 3 or 4 months old when i was told i weigh too much for my age and the doctor had my parents put me on half strength milk.

from that time i was constantly compared to what is "normal". because of that and the yo-yo dieting trends at the time, i ended up with an eating disorder. it's taken years to overcome years of trying to starve myself thin, and focus on health/nutrition instead of mass.