Eating disorders in children: 'She will feed her toy baby but she doesn’t know she needs to feed herself'

Eight-year-old Heidi has anorexia. She is one of 17,000 children aged 5-10 in the UK with an eating disorder.

By Will Tullis, ITV News

“Heidi loves to draw pictures of food,” says her mum.

“At the hospital she drew pictures of ice cream, a chocolate bar and a cupcake. The nurse asked her, 'do you eat any of those things Heidi?’ Heidi just shook her head and said no”.

Heidi does many of the things eight-year-olds love to do: she draws, she plays with her dolls and she loves seeing her friends. 

But aside from the usual trials and tribulations of childhood, Heidi has anorexia. She is one of 17,000 children in the UK aged 5-10 with an eating disorder. 

Heidi's eating disorder makes her so exhausted, she often struggles to concentrate. This means she only goes to school for half a day

And like so many others suffering with eating disorders, Heidi’s mum Stephanie says the Covid pandemic has made her daughter’s situation “a million times worse”.

It all started eighteen months ago, when Heidi heard a voice in her head telling her to stop eating.

“She doesn’t understand what she’s doing or why she’s doing it,” says Stephanie: "As a mother, I’m heartbroken inside”.

The lack of eating has left Heidi exhausted. So exhausted, that she can only manage half a day of school before coming home early and going to sleep.

A naturally intelligent, caring, and sensitive girl who dreams of becoming a vet, Heidi’s condition has had a huge impact on her energy and ability to concentrate:

“Sometimes walking is too much for her, so I have to take her out in a buggy,” says Stephanie.

"Her friends don’t know about her condition and say ‘aren’t you a bit old for that Heidi?’ and my heart just sinks”.

Heidi was referred to an NHS eating disorder team. But eating disorders in children her age are so uncommon that no care plan exists for a child of Heidi’s age. This means that, at the age of eight, Heidi has been put on an eating disorder care plan designed forteenagers.

“I broke down saying there’s no path for Heidi because she’s so young...we’re left treading water”.

The pandemic has made matters worse.

Heidi’s doctor is stuck abroad meaning her parents are unable to liaise with him. This has stalled Heidi’s treatment and recovery.

Zoom sessions with doctors are no substitute for the in-person treatment Heidi so desperately needs.

Stephanie often feels like her family is taking on this battle alone. 

Things to look out for if you are worried that your child might have an eating disorder:

  • Avoiding eating with the family, including by saying they have already eaten or will eat later

  • Being very rigid about what they will and won’t eat, or obsessively counting calories

  • Excessive focus on body weight and shape

  • Low confidence and self-esteem

  • Social withdrawal or isolation

Covid-19 has dealt a cruel blow to people with eating disorders. Beat Eating Disorders, a charity, says it has seen a 170% increase in people seeking its help since the start of thepandemic. 

Tom Quinn of Beat said that Covid and lockdowns have created a perfect storm for the estimated 1.3m people in the UK with eating disorders.

Covid restrictions have taken away the routine that is so crucial to managing eating disorders, lockdown has led to increased anxiety and isolation, and it has been harder to see friends and go out - crucial coping mechanisms for many people with eating disorders.

Heidi dreams of becoming a vet, working on a farm, or becoming a childminder like her mum

On top of this, treatment programmes and groups have either been closed, cancelled, ormoved online - no substitute for in-person treatment. 

Food shortages and stockpiling brought on by the pandemic have also had an impact on people with eating disorders, who rely on “safe foods” that they feel comfortable eating. 

Safe foods are crucial to the recovery process for people with eating disorders. Safe food shortages have been devastating for many with eating disorders, who found going food shopping distressing enough at the best of times.

Eating disorders need to be diagnosed and treated early for the best possible results, said Mr Quinn. But Covid has made getting doctors’ appointments and in-person treatment so much harder.

Heidi’s mum Stephanie is a childminder who has been working tirelessly throughout the pandemic. Caring for children is her profession, but nothing could prepare her for what her own daughter’s going through: 

“With other people’s children from the outside looking in, you think that you can deal with it...but I’m literally watching [Heidi] go through this every day. It’s absolutely devastating”. 

Heidi is a generous, compassionate girl whose dreams are all based around helping others. She often talks of how she wants to look after children like her mum, or look after animals. 

This is reflected in Heidi’s love of dolls who she cares for as if they were real children:

“She loves looking after babies,” says Stephanie, “she will feed her toy baby but she doesn’t know she needs to feed herself.”

Beat Eating Disorders says it has seen a 170% increase in people seeking its help since the start of the pandemic.

Heidi and her family can take huge pride in the courage they are showing in the face of child anorexia, when information and resources on eating disorders in children are so limited.

“Heidi always says ‘I want to be like you mummy’,” says Stephanie. “I must be doing a good job if I’ve got a daughter who wants to be like me. What a compliment that is.”

If you or someone you know has been affected by any of the issues raised in this report, here's where to get help.

Get in touch with your local GP, or reach out to eating disorder charity Beat via their website or on 0808 801 0677.