Is your toddler a fussy eater? It's probably not your fault, say scientists

Story highlights

  • Genes have been found to play a role in whether someone is a fussy eater
  • Parents of fussy toddlers should stop stressing about it during meals

(CNN)Toddlers' fussy eating habits can leave their parents wanting to tear their hair out, mainly with worry that they are doing something wrong.

But those blaming themselves for their child's refusal to eat certain foods can stop feeling so guilty because their behavior is likely to be influenced by genetics, according to a new study published Friday.
    In fact, trying to pressure a toddler into eating a more varied diet can instead backfire and make them even pickier, according to Andrea Smith, a PhD student at University College London who co-led the study.
    "Keeping meal times as positive as possible is the way forward," said Smith.

    Genetic influence at mealtime

    Smith examined the eating habits of more than 1,900 pairs of 16-month-old twins. Specifically, she explored both the tendency of the toddlers to be highly selective about the textures, taste and smell of foods they are willing to eat (which she calls "food fussiness") and their refusal to try new food ("food neophobia").
    When combined with questionnaires completed by their parents, the team investigated how genes and the home environment, such as parental behavior, play a role in a child's attitude to food. They found "significant genetic influence on food fussiness and food neophobia during early life," said Smith.
    Genetics were to blame for 46% of instances of food fussiness and 58% of refusals to try new food.
    The use of identical twins (who share 100% of their genes) and non-identical twins (who share 50% of them) helped establish the significance of genetics compared with other factors.

    Good news for parents

    The news was welcomed by Jo Wheatley, associate editor of the Netmums parenting forum.
    "A lot of our mums say they feel guilty if they have a child with fussy eating habits," Wheatley told CNN. "They feel at fault for not having done enough to help their child be more accepting of new foods."
    Parents often feel bad about their children's refusal to eat certain foods
    Wheatley added that the research "goes to show that your child's (genetic) make-up plays a huge factor in whether they will embrace new tastes readily or not."

    Stressful mealtimes

    Other factors for fussiness included the way parents handled mealtimes and whether or not they tried to coerce children into eating.
    "When mealtimes tend to be negative it makes the child tense and those fussy tendencies become stronger," said Smith. "Coercing them into eating also exacerbates these tendencies."