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Eating Disorders in Younger Children

Feeding your child well is one of a parent’s most important jobs – but it’s not always easy. At Children’s Health, we understand the complex relationships between food, family, health and emotions. Each year, we help hundreds of children of all ages have a healthier relationship with food. And we provide parents with life-changing tools to guide their children towards a more balanced, joyful life.

What are Eating Disorders in Younger Children?

Eating disorders are problems with the way a child eats. They’re more common in young children than most people think. And they can happen to a child of any gender, race or ethnicity.

Eating disorders affect children physically and mentally – and can create a lot of stress for families.

Treatment can help you and your child feel better in many ways. Our specialized treatment programs for children ages 5 to 12 can:

  • Reduce stress around meals, travel or social situations
  • Reduce your child’s anxiety
  • Improve your child’s body image (if that’s a problem)
  • Make sure your child gets the nutrients they need for healthy growth and development
  • Improve your child’s energy, mood and ability to focus
  • Prevent or treat serious health problems that eating disorders can cause (like heart or kidney damage)

What are the different types of Eating Disorders in Younger Children?

We offer comprehensive treatment for three types of eating disorders:

Anorexia

Anorexia is when a child refuses to eat a normal amount because they’re scared of gaining weight.

Bulimia

Bulimia is when a child overeats and then throws up (vomits) or uses laxatives to prevent gaining weight.

Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)

Children with ARFID struggle to eat for reasons that are unrelated to weight gain or body image. They may eat only a few specific foods and refuse all others. This may be based on texture, taste, a fear of choking or vomiting, or other fears or struggles.

What are the signs and symptoms of Eating Disorders in Younger Children?

Eating disorders are not always obvious. A child can look “normal” and “healthy” on the outside but have serious physical and emotional problems on the inside.

The first sign that you – or your child’s doctor – may notice is that your child isn’t gaining the typical amount of weight for their age or height.

Other early signs of anorexia, bulimia or ARFID in children include:

  • Not eating what they used to eat (“I’m not going to eat my favorite muffin anymore.”)
  • Taking a long time to eat
  • Not eating what the rest of the family eats
  • Having trouble focusing in school
  • Not wanting to go to events with food, like birthday parties

Boys and girls with anorexia and bulimia may also:

  • Make comments about other people’s bodies
  • Lose weight
  • Exercise too much
  • Make comments about their body and how they don’t like it

Boys and girls with ARFID may also:

  • Avoid eating an entire category of food, like fruits and veggies
  • Be very specific about restaurants they’re willing to eat at and what they order there
  • Only eat specific brands
  • Only eat foods with certain textures
  • Prefer foods with lots of carbs
  • Have a history of eating struggles from infancy or early childhood
  • May have a sudden change with eating due to fears of choking, vomiting, pain, medical struggles or other experiences.
  • Have tantrums or behavior problems

How are Eating Disorders in Younger Children diagnosed?

If there are concerns about your child’s eating habits or body image, give us a call. We will ask you questions over the phone to help figure out what type of eating disorder your child may have and how best to help.

A physical exam is recommended to make sure your child isn’t having any other medical problems. One of our mental health clinicians will also do a comprehensive evaluation to understand your child’s health, eating habits and behavior. Then we’ll recommend the right level of care to meet your child’s unique needs.

What are the causes of Eating Disorders in Younger Children?

Many parents wonder, “Why is my child not eating?” or “Why can’t my child eat normally?” The answer is usually not simple.

It’s important to realize that the causes are different for every child, and that parents are never the cause. But parents can be part of the solution.

Here are some things that can make a child more likely to have an eating disorder:

  • Some kind of trauma related to eating (like choking)
  • Bullying at school
  • A family history of eating disorders
  • History of feeding struggles
  • Having sensory issues (for ARFID)
  • Other mental health issues such as anxiety or depression may contribute to eating disorders

How are Eating Disorders in Younger Children treated?

We’re committed to the best evidence-based care available. We offer several levels of expert care, depending on the unique needs of your child:

  • Inpatient care for children who need to be in the hospital for medical, nutrition or growth problems caused by an eating disorder.
  • Partial hospitalization for children who need to have their meals supervised but don’t need to spend the night in the hospital. Children stay in the hospital during the day and go home to sleep. While children are in the program during the day, they participate in school, group therapy and therapeutic meals.
  • Intensive outpatient care for children who are ready to return to school and to eat meals at home again and have families that feel equipped to support them at home.

We know that what works for one child may not work for another. We take a variety of approaches to help children and their families figure out what an eating disorder means to them, and how to get back to eating healthfully. You and your child can benefit from:

  • Individual child therapy to address behavior and eating habits, recent stressful or traumatic events, and how your child feels about their body. We can also help treat underlying worries, anxiety or depression that may play a role in your child’s eating issues.
  • Family therapy to make feeding and eating as a family feel good again. We’ll help you better understand your child’s emotions. And we’ll give you lifelong communication and parenting tools.
  • Group therapy to help children and families connect to others who share their struggles.
  • Meal education to learn more about preparing meals and what to say (or not say) during meals to make meals less stressful for your child and your family
  • Parent education to help you sustain positive changes for years to come.

Eating Disorders in Younger Children Doctors and Providers

Children’s Health℠ offers world-class, compassionate care from a variety of experts who specialize in treating eating disorders.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can young children really have eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia?

    Yes, a 4- or 5-year-old can have anorexia or bulimia. Research shows that children as young as 3 become aware of different body types and labels like “fat” and “thin.” Something as simple as hearing “you’re at the top of the growth curve” can begin to shape how a child sees themselves and how they eat.

  • Will my young child grow out of an eating disorder?

    Body image problems tend to get worse as children get older. Early treatment can set your child up for a happier, healthier life.

  • What’s the difference between a food phobia (fear of food) or food neophobia (fear of new foods) and an eating disorder like ARFID?

    Food phobias and neophobia can be a part of ARFID. Food phobias are most common in children who also have Autism Spectrum Disorder, but they are not specific to children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Many children with autism struggle with different food colors, textures and tastes.

  • Do you treat many boys for eating disorders?

    Yes, over 20% of our patients are boys. The number of children and teens with eating disorders continues to rise in children of all genders. We have the expertise to tailor treatment for boys, girls, transgender and gender-fluid children and teens.