Most people think of teenagers or young adults when they think of eating disorders, but they can affect young children as well. The rates of eating disorders among young girls and boys under 12 have been growing in recent years, so it is important for parents and anyone who works with young children to recognize the signs.1 Physical growth is such an important component of childhood, and eating disorders can cause significant damage to a child’s body.

Causes and Risks

Researchers do not know what causes eating disorders, but they have a strong sense of what increases the risk of developing one. Eating disorders can be heritable, so if a parent, sibling, or another relative of a child has an eating disorder, they are 7-12 times more likely to develop one than a child who does not.2 Children diagnosed with chronic illness are also at higher risk, particularly those diagnosed with insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus.3 Children who struggle with depression, anxiety, and other mental illness may also be at increased risk.

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Common Types of Eating Disorders in Children

Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder is a common eating disorder experienced by young children. Children with this disorder experience a disturbance in their eating which can include a lack of interest in food or a sensory aversion to certain foods. For example, a child might be averse to swallowing or the texture of foods they once enjoyed. They might also fear getting stomach aches or vomiting if they became sick because of a certain food. These aversions and restrictions can lead to weight loss and nutritional deficiency among young children.

Pica is a type of condition where a child might eat non-food or non-nutritional substances persistently. To be diagnosed with pica, the behavior must fall outside of the child’s expected developmental level (i.e. an infant who chews on objects would not qualify). These substances often include dirt, soap, chalk, sand, ice, and hair.

Anorexia nervosa can affect both young girls and boys. Children with anorexia think they are overweight when they seem very underweight to other people. Children might obsess about their food intake and with how to control their weight. They might exercise intensively or binge and then purge. Anorexia can cause significant damage to physical health and growth, so it is important to seek treatment as soon as possible for a child.

Other less common eating disorders among children include bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder.4

Early Signs

Early detection and prevention are key to treating eating disorders in young children. The signs are often subtle, as your child does not have to be focused on body image or weight to have an eating disorder. Your child also does not have to meet the criteria for a disorder to benefit from intervention. Early warning signs can include:5

  • fear of stomach aches
  • aversion to tastes or textures
  • tantrums
  • excessive bowel movements
  • worry about body image

Signs of a more developed eating disorder can include:

  • refraining from eating
  • reducing food portions
  • weight loss
  • lack of growth
  • thinning of hair
  • delay of puberty
  • constipation or digestion problems
  • hiding or hoarding food
  • mood swings
  • fine hair growth on the body

Treating Eating Disorders in Young Children

There are many components of treating eating disorders among young children. Regaining weight is an essential component so that the child’s physical and nutritional health is restored. Because parents and caretakers play such a significant role in the child’s life, family-based intervention and treatment is usually recommended. Parents often blame themselves for the child’s eating disorder, so when parents can become more confident and empowered to help their child, the outcome is often better. Children may also receive behavioral interventions to help expose them to foods they avoid and to help them regain a healthy relationship with eating.

If you are the parent of a child with an eating disorder, it’s important to reach out to your child’s pediatrician, nutritionist, or other mental health professionals to help you feel supported and get the best care for your child. Setting the course for a healthy relationship with food will benefit your child’s entire life. So even if you are uncertain whether there may be a problem, it never hurts to reach out to professionals. Whom can you talk to today to get help for your child?

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Last Updated: Aug 27, 2018