Early Childhood Eating Disorders: Symptoms and Treatment of Eating Disorders in Young Children

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The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, fourth edition, the standard reference for all mental health disorders, identifies three eating disorders that are fairly common in early childhood. These include pica, rumination disorder, and feeding disorder of infancy or early childhood. Let’s take a brief look at these three eating disorders.


Children with pica eat one or more substances that are not food for at least a month. The substance eaten can vary with age. Younger children are more likely to eat paint, plaster, string, hair, or cloth and older children may eat animal droppings, insects, sand, leaves, or pebbles. The most common causes of pica include anemia, zinc deficiency, mental retardation, and developmental delays. Oral fixation, lack of stimulation, and a lack of parental attention are also likely causes of pica.

Pica is quite difficult to treat, however, encouraging the child to eat a healthy and balanced diet can help in controlling it. A dietician can help in identifying and incorporating foods that can replace the non-food substances. A developmentally-appropriate stimulation program to replace the oral stimulation that children get from these substances is also part of the treatment of pica. A comprehensive behavioral plan may also be required.

Rumination Disorder

Children with rumination disorder swallow the food, bring the partially digested food back up, and then re-chew it. The child may then swallow the food again or may spit it out. It is diagnosed as an eating disorder when it happens daily for at least a month. The disorder usually occurs in infants and very young children, between the age of 3 and 12 months.

The treatment of this disorder involves changing the child’s behavior. It may involve changing the child’s posture during and after eating, and encouraging more interaction between the mother and child during feeding. Distracting the child when rumination begins and making feeding time a more pleasurable experience may help in reducing the frequency of the behavior.

Feeding Disorders of Infancy and Early Childhood

When a young children is not eating properly, he or she is said to have a feeding disorder. Not eating properly causes nutritional deficiencies, and the child is also not able to maintain a weight appropriate for his or her age. An eating disorder is diagnosed as a feeding disorder when the infant or young child is malnourished and there is no underlying medical cause for it.

Treatment of this eating disorder usually involves increasing the number of calories and fluids that the child takes. Vitamin or mineral deficiencies may require treatment in the form of supplements. Treatment may also be required for any underlying physical or psychosocial problems that may be contributing to the feeding disorder.

Other Early Childhood Eating Disorders

Children as young as four years old may have eating disorders that are quite similar to anorexia nervosa and bulimia as seen in older children and adults. Food avoidance is often a behavior that later develops into anorexia. Selective eating is also seen in many young children, in which a narrow range of foods, mostly carbohydrates, are consumed by the child. A child may also have pervasive refusal syndrome in which the he or she consistently refuses to consume any food.

Often, parent-child interaction is the reason behind these eating disorders in young children. This is why most of these can be effectively treated by improving the way you as a parent interact and communicate with the child.


American College of Neuropsychopharmacology: Eating Disturbances and Eating Disorders in Childhood


Mentalhelp.net: Feeding and Eating Disorders of Infancy or Early Childhood: Pica


Vanderbilt University: Children and Eating Disorders