I may be a bit biased, but I think that every parent could benefit from working with a pediatric nutritionist. Most pediatricians get very minimal training in nutrition and often don’t have the time to answer questions in depth. Dietitians, however, specialize in just feeding and often our appointments are longer, giving us more time to focus on any area of concerns you may have.
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Dietitian vs Nutritionist
For the purpose of this article, I will be using the 2 terms interchangeably, but I do want to note that in the United States, there are some key differences between the two. There are some differences state by state, but nationally, the term “nutritionist” is not protected, meaning that anyone can call themselves a nutritionist.
This doesn’t mean that all nutritionists are bad. It does mean that you’ll need to do some digging to make sure that they have done some training.
A registered dietitian, however, must have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree (and a master’s degree starting in 2024). Then they must complete a minimum of 1200 supervised hours, pass a comprehensive exam, and maintain their certification with continuing education.
This doesn’t mean that all dietitians are going to be appropriate to work with either. We all learn about all areas of nutrition and then usually specialize in certain topics. You’ll want to find someone who specializes in pediatrics and who has viewpoints that align with yours.
For example, I am a neurodiversity affirming dietitian who focuses on creating a positive relationship with food and more enjoyable family meals. I am also a lactation consultant. I help with all things feeding in the first few years of life: breastfeeding, formula feeding, introducing solids, introducing allergens, and picky eating.
Whether you are breastfeeding, formula feeding (affiliate link), or some combination, a dietitian can help make sure that you are meeting your needs. Bonus if you can find a dietitian who is also a lactation consultant, because then we can help with any direct breastfeeding issues you may face.
Many parents worry that their baby is not eating enough. A pediatric nutritionist can help assess your baby’s growth and make sure that they are following their growth curve. We can also make sure that any formula you choose is appropriate for your baby.
If your baby is having tolerance problems with formula or breastfeeding, we can help to rule out allergies or intolerances (along with your pediatrician), and give recommendations for any changes. Many parents go on elimination diets and then find out that they really didn’t need to. Others switch formulas too often, never giving their baby a chance to get used to each formula.
Most parents are turning to the internet for information on introducing solids to their baby. They soon find that the information contradicts itself and is overwhelming. A dietitian can help you sift through that information and figure out what’s really best for YOUR situation. It turns out that there’s no best answer for everyone.
If you’re curious about BLW vs purees or when you should be introducing solids a dietitian can help you come up with a plan. You may have been given a handout from your pediatrician or just a verbal ok to start solids, but a pediatric nutritionist can answer all the questions you have. We are required to stay up on current research, so you can trust that out information will be up to date.
If you’re looking for more information on starting solids, but don’t have the time for one on one consults, check out my Starting Solids Made Easy Course!
Introducing allergens is often listed as one of the most stressful parts of feeding kids. With the change in guidelines recently, many parents are confused on when to introduce these foods and how to actually do it. It’s why I wrote a book on the topic (affiliate link). I was getting questions constantly.
Having a game plan can provide you the confidence you need. While there is no way to guarantee your child won’t develop a food allergy, knowing that you are doing what you can is empowering.
Whether your child is already a picky eater or you’re just trying to prevent them from becoming one, working with a pediatric nutritionist is a great idea. We can help set up the foundation for successful mealtimes. Following the Division of Responsibility is a great first step, but working with a dietitian individually allows us to tailor our recommendations to you and your family specifically.
Research has found that pressuring kids to eat foods tends to backfire in the long run (1). This is generally how we were raised. It can take a lot of work to unlearn some of these ideas. A more responsive feeding environment generally elicits a better response in the long run.
A pediatric nutritionist can work with you to come up with ideas to playfully introduce new foods in a way that your child enjoys. We can work together to come up with realistic goals that benefit all members of the family.
It’s very common for autistic children and children with ADHD to struggle with aspects of feeding. Often sensory processing differences appear in the form as picky eating or behavior “problems” at mealtimes. Figuring out the triggers and potential accommodations can help make the eating environment more enjoyable for everyone.
Often parents of neurodivergent children feel that their meals should look the same as the meals of neurotypical family. This pressure can put strain and stress on the family. Instead, a pediatric nutritionist (and other members of the care team) can work to find accommodations to make the environment more neurodivergent friendly.
This can be something like dimmer lighting, headphones at meals, a band around the chair to kick, a weighted blanket, different utensils, or some other idea unique to your situation. Finding a dietitian who is neurodiversity affirming is key when looking for an autism or ADHD nutritionist. The goal should not be to make your child appear neurotypical, but to make your child thrive in an environment not designed for them.
If your child does have a food allergy, working with a dietitian can help to ensure that they are getting all the nutrition that they need. Often when you need to cut out a food group, you are also eliminating many micronutrients. These micronutrients can be found in other foods, but it’s important to know where to look.
It also seems very easy to omit the food your child is allergic to. However these foods can often be found in unexpected places. A dietitian can help you figure out how to read a food label and how to figure out if your child’s allergen is in non-food items.
If your child’s diet is restricted in any way, a dietitian can help make sure that your child is meeting their nutrient needs. For example, vegans often need additional supplementation. A pediatric nutritionist can make sure that your child is getting adequate micronutrients.
This is true for diets that are intentionally omitting foods like with vegetarianism or veganism as well as with kids who are very picky and have limited diets for that reason.
If your child has a medical diagnosis like type 1 diabetes or PKU, working with a registered dietitian can be incredibly helpful. This is one case where it is important to work with a registered dietitian and not a nutritionist. A dietitian can do medical nutrition therapy, or prescribe diets for medical conditions, whereas a nutritionist cannot.
Even within the subcategory of pediatric nutrition, there are specialists who focus on some of these medical conditions. I would recommend looking for a pediatric dietitian who specializes in your child’s condition, especially if you child’s condition is more rare. Many generalized dietitians won’t have much experience with rare conditions.
Long Term Health
If you follow me on Instagram, you may notice that I don’t put a lot of emphasis on specific nutrition recommendations. My focus is on creating a healthy relationship with food. That being said, good nutrition is a part of that. Working with a dietitian can help set your child up for health in the long run by giving them good habits from the start.
I advise against teaching kids about nutrition at a young age. Children are black and white thinkers and their brains aren’t usually ready for it. That doesn’t mean that you as the parent couldn’t benefit from that education. We are often given very little education about nutrition in school and much of it is oversimplified. Working with a dietitian could improve your family’s nutrition.
Ever feel like you are constantly coming up with meal ideas for your kids? Wish someone else would do it for you? Many nutritionists offer this service. They will come up with a balanced meal plan for you and your family, often with shopping lists attached.
These meal plans are tailored to your family to take into account your child’s age, their growth, and any restrictions or preferences they may have. They are much more customized than what you can find by googling.
If you are having any concerns about your child’s growth, working with a pediatric nutritionist can help. Every child should be growing along their own growth curve. We look at the big picture and assess for any potential concerns.
Whether you are concerned that your child is growing too quickly or too slowly, we can look at their overall growth and help come up with recommendations.
If your child has a diagnosed nutrient deficiency, a dietitian can help you make sure you’re getting enough of that nutrient in your child’s diet. Yes, you will probably need a supplement to get your child back to normal levels. After that, following a diet with adequate levels can help prevent further deficiencies.
In some cases we can see that your child is eating a different nutrient in excess that is inhibiting absorption of whichever nutrient your child is deficient in. For example, in many cases of iron deficiency anemia, the child is drinking too much milk. Decreasing milk intake goes hand in hand with increasing iron intake.
A nutritionist can take a look at the whole picture to assess what changes to the diet should be made.
Constipation and Diarrhea
Many children suffer from either constipation or diarrhea at some point throughout their childhood. When it becomes chronic, a dietitian can help. We can make recommendations based on your child’s intake. For some kids, an excess of fiber is causing the constipation, so the typical recommendation of increasing fiber may exacerbate the issue.
Old recommendations of the BRAT diet are no longer recommended for diarrhea, however they are still floating around the internet. A dietitian can help come up with more appropriate recommendations for your child to better meet their nutritional needs.
A nutritionist is there to help you meet your goals. We can work with you on any and all questions that you have!
Krystyn Parks is a Registered Dietitian and Lactation Consultant who specializes in feeding children. She has a Master’s Degree in Nutritional Science from California State University Long Beach. She is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and has been registered with the Commission on Dietetic Registration since 2013.