Neophobia: the fear of the new

baby holding bottle

Is your child a picky eater? Well, here’s some reassuring news for frustrated parents: you are not alone. Furthermore, a fear of new foods and a fear of new things in general often go hand-in-hand for many children.

Tell Me More

Most of us would be surprised to discover that research shows children often require 8-15 tries of a new food before accepting it! After 2-4 attempts, many frustrated parents simply stop trying.

It turns out that for many children their rejection of new foods is based on fear or anxiety of the new or unfamiliar. If this sounds all too familiar, don’t despair: you can help your child overcome their neophobia by recognizing their anxiety and implementing strategies to eliminate the ‘newness’ of foods.

So What?

Introducing a new food as a supporting figure rather than a lead character on the table may help in accepting new foods. Some parents set a rule that everyone must take a small serving of every dish on the table. If you fall into this category, offering a very small amount (1-2 spoonfuls) of new dishes can be less daunting than a regular serving. Another tip is to set a guiding principle, for example, where every one must try two out of three available dishes. In this way, new dishes can be slowly varied until they are one of the familiar dishes next to the new one. These strategies are simple, yet can have a dramatic impact on mealtime experiences. 

Similar approaches can be effective when introducing your child to other new activities or experiences.

Got a neophobe of your own?

Is your child generally hesitant to try new things? Slowly introducing them to new things can make a big difference in getting them to attempt new things, and in increasing their comfort levels while they do so. For example, if you’ve signed your child up for an activity group that you truly believe they will enjoy based on their age and skills, don’t let their anxiety stand in the way of benefitting from new experiences.

Steps you can take to make your child more comfortable:

  • Talk about the upcoming event and the general activities that will take place.
  • Be specific about the activity or sequence of events.
  • Seeing other children doing the same activity can be useful. When possible or appropriate, watching internet video clips (for example, a swim class, sitting in a circle, playing at a daycare center, or toddler football matches) during your discussions might be an anxiety-free introduction to the activity.
  • Visit the location before the first day to introduce the facility/area to your child, and even better, observe the actual activity together before your child has to engage in it.
  • If the activity requires equipment or clothing unfamiliar to the child, allow them to test out some of these items at home in familiar and comfortable surroundings.

Taken together, these preparatory experiences aim to reduce the number of new things your child has to face on the first day and gives the child a greater sense of control over a potentially challenging situation.

A note about the author:

Dr. Randa Grob-Zakhary, MD Ph.D. is the Founder of The Babyboost Institute for Early Learning and Development. Want more tips?  Purchase Babyboost: 50 Critical Facts on Amazon.

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