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How to Handle Your Child and Sweets

When kids are asking for sweets all the time, or seem pre-occupied with them, it can be unsettling. Learn what’s behind your child and sweets, how to think about sweets, and some ways to handle them in your home.

Jane’s little guy seemed to be developing a sweet habit. He was super alert to desserts and asked for them all the time. Jane worried that she had a child who was getting too fixated on sweets.

Jane was not alone in her concerns. Some parents worry their child is becoming too triggered by sweets.

They notice a change in their child’s behavior when around treats and a growing preference for them.

A cupcake: Is your child developing a sweet habit? Here's what you can do about it (and why it might be happening).

Why are Kids Attracted to Sweets?

There are a couple of reasons your child may be drawn to sweets.

For one, in utero, babies are exposed to the sweetness of amniotic fluid. They consume it and are attuned to sweet flavor. 

Breast milk is also sweet, so if you breastfed your child, that innate preference for sweetness was reinforced.

Another reason has to do with the brain and its pleasure centers, which are turned on by highly palatable foods, such as those containing sugar, fat, and salt.

In other words, these foods trigger feel-good brain chemicals such as dopamine. Once children experience pleasure (associated with increased dopamine transmission in the brain’s reward pathway) from eating sugary foods, they may feel an urge to eat them again.

Another factor is palatability—or how good certain foods taste. In children, the flavors they taste reinforce their food preferences.

The more they taste sweetened foods, for example, the more they like them, and the more they want to eat them.

And still another explanation is in the training of young children’s palates to like sweets simply through early introduction of them in their diet.

For example, young toddlers who sip on mommy’s soda or eat lollipops are building food preferences for sweets simply due to repeated exposure to them. 

Last, if you’re not feeding your child on a schedule that offers up food every 3 hours or so, and/or he isn’t getting enough calories or nutrients to eat throughout the day, he may be seeking quick carbs (like sugary foods) to satisfy his appetite.

Sugary foods are full of simple carbohydrates and these boost those feel-good hormones in the brain, and bump up the blood sugar which increases your child energy.

What You Can Do to Help Your Child around Sweets

There are several things you can do to help your child calm down around sweets and treats.

1. Neutralize the Power of Sweets

Have you ever thought about serving sweets with mealtime? That’s how they do it in school—served right on the tray with lunch.

Try offering sweets as part of the meal, in a small dish or as a pre-portioned serving. Your child may eat it first, or last, but it all goes down the same hatch, so to speak.

Serving sweets alongside other meal components normalizes them among other foods, teaching your child that all foods can be included in a healthy meal.

Be sure not to make sweets an issue by putting strict limitations on them. Restriction may increase the desire for sugary treats and cause other issues including sneaking, tantrums and other undesirable behaviors.

Better yet, have a strategic plan in place for allowing sweets in your child’s diet.

2. Know Where Sugar Shows Up

There are obvious sources of sugar such as desserts and sugary beverages, and there are hidden sugar sources that are harder to identify, such as the sugar found in cereal, sweetened yogurt, flavored milk and other kid-friendly snacks.

Keep the obvious sources dialed in, and equally importantly, watch out for the sneaky sources. Switch to low sugar cereals, plain or flavored yogurt, and save flavored milk for special occasions.

Read ingredients labels and watch out for added sugar (indicated by words like sucrose, dextrose and any other words ending in –ose).

Keep the obvious sources of sugar dialed in, and watch out for the sneaky sources--they can add up quickly. Click To Tweet

3. Don’t Get Trapped by Substitutes

Artificial sweeteners, while they don’t contribute to the calorie bottom line, certainly taste sweet and may encourage the desire for more sweet tasting foods.

4. Set Up your Boundaries

Put food away after meals, have your child sit at the table to eat (even for snacks and dessert), and close the kitchen between meals and snacks.

This will curb free-range eating between meals and discourage pantry raids for sweets and other snacks.

5. Be Predictable

Kids ask for the things they want—over and over– particularly if you’ve given in to their pestering in the past.

Constant questioning may be a sign that there is insecurity with, or fixation on, sweets. Don’t become too annoyed by this, as it is natural for children to want structure and predictability in their life. Build it!

Figure out a weekly plan for sweets, taking into account special occasions. Most children can have one or two child-sized, petite portions without harming their health.

6. Encourage Enjoyment of Eating Sweets

Have your child take the time to enjoy eating sweets when they have them. No running around or mindless eating in front of the TV.

Have your child sit at the table or counter and savor them. In the end, you’ll be teaching good eating habits, and your child will get to enjoy the sweets they eat.

7. Do Not Motivate Eating with Sweets

Offer sweets with a ‘no strings attached’ policy. If you do the opposite– entice your child’s eating with the reward of a treat—you’ll be inadvertently emphasizing the importance of sweets and perhaps elevating its status among other foods.

8. Don’t Tempt Fate

Having sweets around will certainly draw a child’s attention to them. Out of site, out of mind is the mantra that works for many young kids.

As children age, though, they start to remember sweets (just like adults do!) and may persist in obtaining them when you’re not around.

 If your child is drawn to sweets, how are you managing it?

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