Appetite changes

Cancer and its treatments often cause changes in a child’s eating habits and desire to eat. Not eating can lead to weight loss, and can cause weakness and fatigue. Helping your child eat as well as they can is an important part of helping them through treatment. If your child has been having trouble eating or has had a poor appetite, talk to your health care team. Treatment-related side effects like pain, nausea, and constipation can also cause loss of appetite. Managing these problems may help her eat better. Talk to the health team if you have:

  • An infant with a poor appetite for more than 3 days
  • A toddler or preschooler with a poor appetite for more than 5 days
  • A school age child or teen with a poor appetite for more than 7 days

If your child doesn’t want to eat at meal times, keep nutritious snacks handy to eat when they feel hungry. Try hard-cooked eggs, peanut butter, cheese, ice cream, granola bars, liquid nutritional supplements, puddings, nuts, canned tuna or chicken, or trail mix. Also try these tips:

  • Try to make mealtime fun and praise a healthy appetite or good eating habits. Setting the table with pretty dishes, playing your child’s favorite music, watching television, or visiting with friends while eating can also help.
  • Offer frequent small meals and snacks throughout the day, rather than 3 large meals.
  • Keep your child’s mouth clean with regular rinsing and brushing. Keep the mouth moist – don’t let it get dry.
  • Let your child eat their favorite foods any time of the day; for example if she really likes breakfast foods, let her eat them for dinner.
  • Let your child help you shop and prepare the foods.
  • Avoid arguing, nagging, or punishing a child who is unwilling to eat. Talk to the doctor if you are worried that your child isn’t eating enough.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Revised: June 30, 2014

American Cancer Society medical information is copyrighted material. For reprint requests, please see our Content Usage Policy.