Toddlers can be finicky, which can be frustrating for parents who want to see them thrive and grow. If a vitamin deficiency is causing poor appetite, vitamin supplements may help. Otherwise, they won't be an appetite booster for toddlers. Keep in mind that there could be other reasons for a poor appetite which, when resolved, will help your toddler eat more.
Vitamins for toddlers' appetites are effective only if there is a deficiency. There is no best vitamin for kids to gain weight.
Potential Vitamin Deficiencies in Children
Vitamin deficiencies are less common in the Western world, where there is increased access to nutritious foods. However, that doesn't mean they are non-existent. Toddlers who are picky eaters, and those who are provided a lot of non-nutritive "junk" foods, may be more likely to experience deficiencies. Certain health conditions may also inhibit nutrient absorption and result in low blood levels.
In general, vitamin deficiencies cause a range of symptoms that can lead to fatigue, nausea, stomach pain and other side effects that can make children feel sick. If this is the case, then it could be affecting your toddler's desire to eat. In addition, some specific vitamin deficiencies are known to result in loss of appetite. These include:
- Vitamin B12 — Low B12 can cause developmental delays in children. It is sometimes caused by maternal B12 deficiencies, more common in mothers who eat a vegan diet. A B12 deficiency can also cause pernicious anemia, a condition in which red blood cells become enlarged and the cells don't develop properly. Both B12 deficiency and pernicious anemia can cause lack of appetite, as well as fatigue, pale skin, constipation or diarrhea, and tongue pain or changes in its appearance.
- Folate — also called folic acid, this B vitamin helps make red blood cells. Low blood levels of folate can lead to anemia, symptoms of which include decreased appetite as well as fatigue, pale skin, irritability, diarrhea and a smooth and tender tongue. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, some babies are born unable to absorb folate.
- Biotin — Biotin deficiency is rare, but can be caused by impaired immune function, seizure medications and genetic disorders. In addition to decreased appetite, symptoms include nausea, muscle pain, seborrheic dermatitis and depression.
If you think your toddler may have a deficiency in one of these nutrients, head to the pediatrician for a checkup. A change in diet or a supplement can help repair the deficiency, as can treating any underlying condition that may be causing it.
In some cases, getting too much of a vitamin can cause decreased appetite. Fat-soluble vitamins A, E, C and K are usual culprits, since excess amounts are stored in fatty tissues. It's uncommon in children, but if you are giving your child high-dose supplements of any of these vitamins, it's possible. Check the labels and talk to your pediatrician before giving toddlers vitamin supplements.
Iron Deficiency Anemia
Mineral deficiencies can just as easily reduce a toddler's appetite, and they are more common than vitamin deficiencies. Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the United States, according to the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. It is also the leading cause of anemia, the same condition caused by low B12 and folate. A main symptom in children who are anemic is poor appetite.
Young children are considered a high-risk population for iron deficiency. Babies are born with enough iron for six months, but after that, their iron requirements increase. Breastmilk and iron-fortified formulas are good sources of the mineral, but cow's milk is not.
Toddlers who drink too much milk may not eat enough other foods, and therefore develop "milk anemia." The American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says children should not have cow's milk until they are one year old; after that, toddlers shouldn't have more than 4 cups a day.
Any nutrient deficiencies should be addressed by your pediatrician; in the meantime, make sure your toddler isn't drinking too much milk, and ensure he is getting enough iron-rich foods in his diet, including beef, chicken, turkey, beans and lentils, baked potatoes, cashews, dark leafy greens, whole-grain and enriched breads and fortified cereals.
Other Causes of Poor Appetite
There are myriad reasons why your toddler may not be eating as much as you'd like. According to Indiana University Health, common reasons for decreased appetite in children include illness, congestion and constipation. If your child is ill, you likely are aware of it. Don't worry if your toddler doesn't eat a lot when sick.
- Fewer than three bowel movements per week
- Stool that is hard, dry and difficult to pass
- Unusually large stools
- Pain during a bowel movement
- Abdominal pain
- Traces of liquid stool in the underwear, which may be a sign of stool backed up in the rectum
- Traces of blood on the surface of stool
Congestion and constipation are typically not serious problems and can be treated at home. When your toddler feels better, he will probably regain his appetite. If the poor appetite is accompanied by any of the following symptoms, you should see your pediatrician:
- Blood in the stool
- Weight loss
- Abdominal swelling
- Nasal mucous that is yellow or green in color
- Less frequent urination
- Signs of ear pain, including pulling on or touching the ear a lot
Appetite Booster for Toddlers
Your toddler's decreased appetite may not be due to any deficiencies or illness at all; it may simply be a developmental stage. If your toddler has started to walk or run, she might just prefer playing and being active instead of sitting still to eat. According to Indiana University Health, around the age of 2 or 3, toddlers begin to assert their independence, which may mean pushing back at mealtimes.
Of course, it's important to rule out any nutrient deficiencies or other health concerns before you chalk up a reduced appetite to toddlerhood. If everything checks out OK, you can take some steps to encourage your toddler to eat more by following these suggestions from Indiana University Health pediatrician Danielle Wiese, MD, from Riley Children's Health:
- Make sure you serve at least one thing you know your toddler likes to eat at mealtimes.
- Encourage her to take at least one bite of everything on her plate. Dr. Weiss calls this a "no thank-you bite." After that, if she doesn't like it, she doesn't have to eat the rest. However, keep offering foods she dislikes at mealtimes so she becomes more familiar.
- Have all family members remain seated at the table for the duration of the meal. This can help "busy" children learn to sit still at mealtimes and eat at least a few more bites.
- Make mealtime a distraction-free zone — no books or toys at the table.
If your child still won't eat, Dr. Weiss says you shouldn't try to provide other foods to fill in for what was missed. For example, don't offer a PBJ sandwich because your child didn't want to eat the chicken you served. She also encourages letting the child determine whether or not to eat. If a child doesn't eat at mealtime and is hungry later, that will help her learn on her own to eat more at mealtimes.
- Journal of Child Neurology: "Vitamin B12 Deficiency in Children: A Treatable Cause of Neurodevelopmental Delay"
- American Family Physician: "Vitamin B12 Deficiency: Recognition and Management"
- Stanford Children's Health: "Megaloblastic (Pernicious) Anemia in Children"
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Folate-Deficiency Anemia"
- University of Rochester Medical Center: "Biotin"
- Oregon State University: "Vitamin A"
- American Academy of Dietetics: "Foods to Fight Iron Deficiency"
- American Academy of Dietetics: "Is Your Body Trying to Tell You Something? Common Nutrient Inadequacies and Deficiencies"
- Fairview: "Nasal Congestion (Infant/Toddler)"
- Mayo Clinic: "Constipation in Children"
- Indiana University Health: "Your Child’s Appetite Has Changed: When to Worry"