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Questionable stuff ‘experts’ say #6: “Your child can go up to three weeks without food and be fine.”

Posted by on Jan 17, 2013 in Blog Posts | 9 comments

“Your child can go up to three weeks without food and be fine.”

This is also under the theme of “Just starve him out,” or “Only serve rice and beans until he eats them: breakfast, lunch and dinner.”


This advice was to a client from her pediatrician. The pediatrician actually said this to a mother. She also said, “No child will starve himself,” a line that I read not infrequently in ‘expert’ articles on picky eating.

What do you think? Aside from being medically dangerous, untrue, and clueless, (and yes, a small percentage of children do refuse to eat to the point of needing medical intervention), starvation itself can trigger eating disorders in genetically predisposed individuals. But, aside from all that…

How would this FEEL as a parent? If any of you have tried the “starve them out” approach, even for a few days, how does it feel? How can this pediatrician recommend an intervention that is so agonizing for parents to follow? Where is the empathy for the child, and the parent?

I asked this mother how she thought it would feel, and advised her to trust her gut. I “gave her permission” to follow her instincts to seek a provider who would be more of an informed partner as they work on their son’s eating. I also did inform her that from my experience, and well known in the research literature, there are some children who refuse to eat, and that three weeks without oral intake is dangerous, not “fine.”

*When I have done trainings for pediatrics and FP residents, it’s clear that most still do not learn about feeding disorders, they don’t even learn about normal development in terms of eating or basic intervention for common feeding challenges. This is not okay and has to change. Considering one in three parents will ask for help from the child’s doctor with feeding, this simply has to change.

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  1. Eileen

    I have never tested to see if my child will starve himself, but he will not eat until his blood sugar goes so low that he completely melts down and has no hope of making any rational decisions. When he gets to this point, the only thing I can do really is restrain him and force a spoonful of peanut butter into his mouth and hold it closed until he swallows. Not my proudest parenting moment but when he gets to the point that he desperately needs food, he will refuse food. It’s a dangerous spiral and fortunately, now that he’s 8, I’ve learned to avoid it and warned all his teachers and caregivers that they’d better give him a snack BEFORE he melts down.

  2. kisekileia

    Also, that pediatrician should be jailed.

  3. BJ

    I’ve gone almost three *days* without food and wanted to kill myself.

    Granted, I’m not a kid anymore. But what’s the fundamental difference between me and a kid when it comes to feeding the body? If anything, it’d be *worse* for kids — bodies need matter for growth and minds don’t have coping skills to deal with deprivation.

  4. Jess

    The three weeks thing is obv. insane. The worst part about it, to me, is that this approach basically advocates getting into a power struggle with your child. Power struggles are not good parenting.

    My kids have refused meals from time to time, though not very often; I always just assume they’re either (a) not hungry or (b) don’t especially like what was served (although there is always *something* I know they like on the table). I’m relaxed about it and assume they’ll eat at the next meal and they almost always do, unless they’re sick. The idea of my kids not eating for days on end, however, is horrifying and I would never let my kid go that long without eating just to avoid “giving in”.

  5. Twistie

    Three weeks????

    Okay, I understand that doctors don’t get nearly enough training in feeding issues, but I’ve never gone to medical school and I know perfectly well that the human body will quite literally starve to death in considerably less time than that without food!

    Don’t doctors get basic information like that? Because I kind of expect a doctor to know more about how the human body works than I do. That’s why we go to them.

    • katja

      Mom was adamant she was told 3 weeks. I think if you really asked the doctor about “3 weeks with no food”, she would agree it’s not OK. My guess is the doctor was trying to convince mom to just stop worrying about it so much already, that the kid would be fine. This doc also then recommended the starve them out approach of serve the same thing every meal in a row… Many of my clients try this at one point or another, and the kids just don’t eat. Most give up after 1-3 days, not 3 weeks… This is a huge problem. Parents are either told not to worry, or are referred for every challenge, typical or not, to a feeding eval. I had one mom of a child call who had eaten NOTHING but mocrowaved bean burritos for 7 years, and the doctor kept saying not to worry, that “he’d grow out of it.” No guidance or support, because the docs don’t even know where to begin…
      If the docs haven’t seen it with their own eyes, or really had or taken the time to listen what is going on in the homes of their patients, they simply would have no clue what might be going on there for reals…

    • kisekileia

      I saw the “three weeks” thing in a website belonging to a so-called “expert”. I believe the person was a pediatrician, although I may be remembering wrong.

      My sister didn’t know, towards the end of medical school, that infants can develop failure to thrive from following a strict feeding schedule.

      And yes, the “no child will starve him/herself” thing is BS. I know because I was a kid with, due to sensory issues and IBS, no other option than bread much of the time at a summer camp program I went to when I was 16. I ate bread rather than things like fruit, because to my brain those things were NOT FOOD.

  6. Slim

    I tried to wait my middle child out. He lost weight, became anemic, and got more frequent headaches. (He gets migraines, and hunger is one of the triggers.)

    I’m more accommodating now, and not only does it feel better to me as a parent, but he is a more competent eater. He will leave a cookie half-eaten if he decides he’s had enough. The other day, he he noticed some tomatoes on the counter and asked for one as a snack. Being able to talk to him about what food can do for us works a lot better than making it a battleground. (We fight about other things instead.)


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