Just like the name itself, there’s nothing friendly or pleasant about force-feeding children, and this practice appears in different forms.
Sometimes, it can look as harmless as demanding that a child finishes everything on their plate. Other times, it takes the form of physically roughing up the child while the food is practically shoved into their mouth.
This latter form is more common in African countries, while the former is a universal practice. In fact, in some countries, leblouh is a practice that involves force-feeding young girls to fatten them up as this is deemed more beautiful than being slim.
Force-feeding isn’t limited to food only; children are also forced to take drugs. Though it’s usually the last resort parents go to when they have no idea how to convince their child to take their meds/foods, it’s harmful and has several negative effects.
This article discusses some of the effects of force-feeding and also offers better alternatives.
What is force-feeding?
Force-feeding simply means to give food to a child against their will. It is considered a method used by parents for children who have refused to eat or are not chubby or fleshy enough.
Parents who force-feed often consider it a good alternative for children who are picky eaters, slow eaters, and those who do not eat so much. But inasmuch as having a child who falls into any of those categories can be challenging, forcing a child to eat is never the option.
Below are some of the things that are considered force-feeding:
- Giving your child larger amounts of food than they demand.
- Ignoring your child’s pleas when they want to stop eating.
- Spanking/punishing your child because they are tired of eating or not interested in eating yet.
- Mocking/teasing the child about their weight in a bid to get them to eat more.
- Pinning the child down with your legs or placing them in a position where they can’t move and shoving the food into their mouth.
- Clipping the child’s nose with your hand forces the child to open their mouth while food is shoved in.
- Threatening the child to eat (more) with a cane, whip, or belt.
- Disapproving of how much food your child eats or emotionally guilt-tripping them to eat more.
Is it okay to force a child to eat?
Getting children to eat can be pretty challenging, especially on days where they’d rather play or watch TV than eat when they’re hungry. But does this make it okay to force children to eat even if the technique employed is subtle?
No, it still doesn’t. Force-feeding a child in any form no matter how subtle/harmless it looks, puts a lot of pressure on them and might cause more harm than good.
Note: Force-feeding isn’t only peculiar to mothers; however, mothers are usually the ones who get to feed children, hence why it may appear as something only mothers do.
Why do parents force-feed children?
- Cultural beliefs: In some cultures, parents believe that the bigger the child, the healthier and more beautiful the child is. Hence, children are force-fed till they reach that beauty standard.
- Slimness or thinness: Regardless of cultural beliefs or not, some parents feel like slim children are malnourished. Hence, they force these children to eat in a bid to boost up their weight.
- To prevent the child from wasting food: This is usually a problem when they are either a picky eater or have too much food on their plate. This can also happen when the child is distracted by play or something else.
- Introducing the child to a new diet: Think about it; if adults are skeptical about trying new foods and can even reject them, don’t you think children are pretty much wired the same way? If your child doesn’t like a new food, give it time because sometimes, they may come around but don’t force them.
- Financial constraints: Femi is 9 months old, and he does not like the taste of the new milk formula, which costs a lot and Femi’s mom can’t afford to buy another brand, so little Femi is stuck with a brand he doesn’t like till it’s finished – that’s one example. Recently, a friend shared a similar story on why he’d rather take custard than akamu (pap). Growing up, his mum made him and his siblings eat akamu everyday, that they got sick of it, but it was their only option so they ate it. And when things got quite better and their mum introduced them to custard (an alternative food), they never went back to akamu – they hate akamu to this day.
- The child is sick: Remember how (as adults) we lose our appetite when we are ill and even avoid the foods we like. Well, so it is with children too.
Harmful effects of force-feeding children
Although feeding children can be quite a hectic task, and as a parent, you want optimal nutrition for your children, here are some reasons why force-feeding should not be your best bet:
- Food can go the wrong way: Remember how it feels when food escapes through our nostrils when we talk while eating? Yikes, right? Well, that happens when children are force-fed physically. Also, the food can find its way to the windpipe, and this might cause choking. Food can find its way into your child’s lungs and nostrils because the windpipe and food pipe are close to each other in the throat. Normally, when swallowing food, the windpipe closes for a short while to allow food to go only into the food pipe. However, physically forcing a child to eat (that is, pinning the child’s hands and nose) prevents the windpipe from closing because the child will be too busy trying to use their mouth for breathing and eating. Hence the food finds itself in the wrong pipe.
- Can cause choking: Choking is a common effect of forcing children to eat because children are forced to use their mouths to eat, breathe, and cry simultaneously.
- Vomiting: When most children are forced to eat, vomiting usually follows next.
- Ruins the child’s appetite: Forcing a child to finish their plate when they’re full or not interested in eating yet, makes them lose interest in eating gradually. It teaches children to ignore their appetite or satiety level, which is the beginning of an unhealthy relationship with foods.
- Prolonged disinterest towards food: Ruining a child’s appetite multiple times can make the child lose interest in food or have mixed feelings about food.
- Unhealthy eating habits develop over time: Force-feeding leads to unhealthy eating habits over time. Most times, it will cause children to stop eating as often as they should; it can also result in the child being obese or consuming unhealthy quantities of food.
- Death: Choking as a result of force-feeding can lead to death.
What to do instead of force-feeding a child
If you are worried that your child is not eating enough, or you’ve noticed that your child has stopped eating their favourite foods, then this section is for you.
There are other ways to make a child eat better and enjoy their food, but you have to understand that children don’t need to eat as much as you do, and if you are a picky eater, your child will also be one too.
Since force-feeding is a no-no, here are a few things you can try instead:
- Understand your child’s eating habits: This is the first step to finding a solution as to why your child isn’t eating. Just like our eating habits vary as adults, children also have different eating habits. Some children enjoy feeding themselves, some like being fed, and others like eating in bits at different times of the day. If you want your child to eat better, you have to understand their eating pattern.
- Serve food in smaller quantities: This will make eating feel less of a workload and easier to finish. This will make the child ask for more (if they still want more) after finishing the first little portion.
- Involve your child in the cooking process: This works even better when preparing your child’s favourite meal. It will make eating more fun.
- Eat with your child: Eating with your child after preparing a meal is helpful to get them to eat better. Avoid nagging the child or shouting when they get tired.
- Reduces distractions: For children that love feeding themselves, make sure to clear the area before giving them food; toys, books, and anything they play with, including TV, should be out of sight.
- Schedule mealtime appropriately: Do not schedule mealtime too close to the child’s bedtime, and DO NOT force children to eat when they are asleep. Schedule their mealtime properly and according to their eating habits.
- Don’t forget to make the food look appealing. Make it attractive, and to make this even easier, you can check out some pretty helpful Instagram pages like @thefamilynutritionist or @05kidsdiet.
- Get in touch with your child’s doctor. If your child is losing weight and showing signs of malnutrition, then please see a doctor.
- Work hand in hand with a paediatric nutritionist if your child is truly not eating well enough. Paediatric nutritionists have a few tricks up their sleeves that you’ll find helpful.
Children are sometimes just like adults. There are certain foods we don’t like to eat, others we can eat, and sometimes, when we are hungry, and there’s food, we just don’t feel like eating yet. And children are not different either.
Hence, pinning a child down to eat or demanding that they finish their plate doesn’t help. Children will eat when they’re hungry. Let them learn to listen to their bodies.
And as foodies will say, food is meant to be enjoyed. It isn’t a task, and your child shouldn’t have to feel like eating is a chore.
If a child isn’t malnourished and their doctor thinks they’re fine, there’s no need to worry about how much they are eating.