In No Mood For Food // Why was my toddler daughter refusing to eat?

As told to Shterna Lazaroff

Baby high chair with healthy food, top view

Layla’s highchair tray was empty, but none of the food had made it into her mouth. There were blobs of sweet potato on the floor and bits of chicken stuck in her hair. Conceding defeat, I put down the spoon and stood up to clean the mess that was scattered around her chair. 


This time, Layla had at least played with her food; the previous night she’d refused to touch it at all, sitting there while ignoring her plate until it was way past her bedtime. The night before that, she’d put the salmon in her mouth—but refused to swallow it. She’d swirled it around for a good five minutes before spitting it back out onto the tray, having failed to absorb a single calorie. 

It was only a few weeks after Layla had undergone a hugely invasive operation that was traumatic for all of us. “It’s normal to take some time to get back to yourself,” the doctor reassured me. “Surgery is a big deal. Sometimes kids need to adjust afterwards.” But every meal was a new battle, and I was running out of ideas. 

Read a book and try to stuff in a bite between words? She clenched her mouth closed. 

Leave her in the highchair until she finally agreed to take a bite? The food just congealed and got cold. 

Step out of the room and let her feed herself? The floor around her seat would be sprinkled with uneaten tidbits. 

Nothing was working. Layla wasn’t eating. 

There were some days when all my toddler consumed was her morning bottle of milk and maybe a tiny cookie in the afternoon. It was nowhere near enough for a growing child, and the results were starting to show. My 18-month-old daughter was losing weight. 

“It’s not normal for a child this age to eat so little,” I told her pediatrician when I brought Layla in.

“It’s not,” he agreed. But he also didn’t know what was going on. 

“Did you try distracting her?” he asked. Yes, we had. And we’d also tried letting her feed herself—and all of the other stratagems he had in mind. It felt like we’d tried every trick in the book, but nothing could induce our baby to eat. 

After a few more visits to the same doctor, with Layla dropping more weight between each one, he said it was time for the specialists. “I’ve never seen this before. You need someone who deals with eating issues,” he said, giving me a referral to an eating clinic at Schneider Children’s Hospital in Petach Tikvah. 

By that time, several months had already passed since Layla’s surgery, which meant several months without her receiving proper nutrition. Surprisingly, she wasn’t particularly tired or cranky; it didn’t seem to bother her. But it was alarming to see the way her diapers needed to be closed tighter and how her blanket sleepers were roomier. Before her surgery, Layla had been in the 50th percentile of weight; now she was down to the tenth. And she was still losing weight, something no toddler should do. 

Layla wasn’t my first child, so I knew that something was clearly amiss. I fell asleep and woke up worrying about her health. It was consuming us, taking over our nights and days. What do you do when your toddler refuses to eat? How do you take care of a child who is stubbornly refusing your help? 

Layla’s pediatrician called the clinic on our behalf. He needed to make sure we could skip the line because the usual wait for an appointment was several weeks, and we didn’t have that much time. I remember driving to the clinic with my husband. I kept looking over at Layla snuggled in her car seat and thinking, Please, Hashem, make this work. I want these doctors to be able to help us. I’d been instructed to withhold all food from Layla for six hours before our appointment. She should have been hungry, but she wasn’t. 

We filled out the paperwork, after which Layla was taken to a small dining room. The feeding specialists wanted to observe how she ate. Or in this case, how she didn’t eat.

 She complied when they told her to sit at the small table and chairs. She sat as they put a plate of food in front of her. Then she sat and sat and sat. Layla refused to touch a single thing on her plate. She didn’t fight. She didn’t scowl. She just sat there without eating. Not a morsel had passed her lips for the past six hours, on top of the several weeks with hardly anything more than a bottle of milk. And still our daughter wasn’t sufficiently enticed to even try. 

After 30 minutes or so, the medical team decided to take the food away. “We’re going to wait another three hours and then try again,” they explained. Three hours later, we brought her back to the dining room. There were other children there as well. A preemie was learning how to eat after having a hard time with a bottle. A toddler was being taught how to swallow after an invasive procedure. Then there was Layla, who had no reason not to be eating but wasn’t. 

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