Parents’ anxiety, depression correlates with fussy eating in kids, study finds

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: iStock
Source: iStock
Putting on a happy face could help children have happy plates, suggests new research that links parents’ anxiety and depression with an increased risk of children becoming “fussy eaters.”

Approximately 30% of 4-year-olds in The Netherlands are fussy or picky eaters, and more likely than not their parents suffered from anxiety or depression during pregnancy or the children’s early years of life, according to a study published Feb. 23 in the Archives of Disease​. 

The study, which included 4,746 4-year-olds and their parents, found a direct correlation between 4-year-olds who were picky eaters and mothers who were anxious or depressed during pregnancy and the preschool period, and fathers who were depressed during the pregnancy or anxious during the early years.

The analysis revealed a point by point increase in toddlers’ scores on a food fussiness scale and parents’ anxiety or depression during the first years of their children’s lives. A similar relationship also was found in father-child pairs for depression during the pregnancy, but not for anxiety during the pregnancy.

The association between mothers’ anxiety and depression levels and their children’s eating is largely consistent with previous research, which was unable to untangle if the mothers’ mental state was the cause or effect of children being picky eaters.

However, this study suggests that a mother’s symptoms during pregnancy could cause children to becoming picky eaters later, rather than the children causing the mother's anxiety by not eating. This is based on the observation that a mother’s mental state during pregnancy predicted 4-year-old’s fussy eating, even if the mom was fine during the first three years of the child’s life. The strength of this conclusion is weakened somewhat by the study being observational, which means further analysis is needed to substantiate this hypothesis beyond correlation. 

Similarly, the observed link between fathers’ depression during pregnancy and children’s attitudes toward eating could be due to the hereditary nature of depression, the study suggests.

The same explanation does not hold true though for the impact of fathers’ anxiety. Given that their anxiety was associated with picky eating only after birth, and not during pregnancy, suggests the relationship is based on parenting behaviors rather than inherited traits. For example, the fathers’ anxiety could lead to too much pressure on children to eat, which could prompt them to turn away from foods, the authors suggest.

The study also notably observed that not only do parents’ severe anxiety and depression impact children’s eating, but also milder forms of internal problems can influence their eating.

As a result, the authors suggest that parents’ mental states should be considered when preventing or managing children’s fussy eating, which can lead to constipation, weight problems and behavior problems – all of which can place more stress on parents and potentially exacerbate the situation.

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