Australian scientists are seeking to find the best treatment alternative for children who have eating problems to reduce the increase in the number of malnourished children who had to be medically assisted due to their food-shunning behaviour.

Quite a number of growing children and nearly 85 per cent of children with disabilities exhibit moderate to severe feeding problems that require nutritional supplements, aid of speech therapists to assist them in the development of oral motor skills such as chewing, and also tube-feeding.

The increase in the number of malnourished children is partly due to improved survival of high-risk children - premature babies - who experience developmental delays, and also lifestyles loaded with junk food diets and lack of family time at the dinner table.

About 300 children are recruited by the Children's Nutrition Research Centre at the University of Queensland for the trial of feeding intervention methods applied by feeding disorder clinics Australia-wide.

According to Dr Pamela Dodrill, research fellow at the centre, the Healthy Eating Learning Program would be the world's first randomized controlled trial to try and check out which of the child- or parent- focused methods could be best to enhance the child's nutritional status.

The three types of feeding interventions will be used and their clinical advantages and cost-effectiveness will be observed:

- nutritional advice and counseling

- behavioural strategies to coax children to eat through the use of rewards

- exercises to improve chewing and biting skills and tolerance of textures.

The trial would also assess the value of routine once-a-week therapy session compared with intensive therapy of three times a day for five days.

It is important to diagnose feeding problems early and treat them before they get worse, said Dr Dodrill. A previous research had found that feeding problems in infants and toddlers were indicators of potential adult diseases such as cancers, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and stroke.

Within the first 12 months of a child's life, it is crucial for parents to establish feeding patterns as they help parents, particularly mothers to bond with the child.

However, parents of children with feeding problems are often wrongly advised to feed their child in any way they can and to aim on easy to swallow high-energy junk food diets, with the focus to put on some weight on their child.

The attention on weight, and not nutrition usually resulted in children becoming fat but it did not solve the issue of malnutrition and the child did not learn to eat healthy fresh foods.