Cooper is three years old and is still 100% bottle-fed. We’ve moved from breast feeding to formula to a shake of pediasure/almond milk/pureed fruit or veggies with beans or scrambled egg. Aside from this issue he is doing remarkably well. But this is a huge issue that has completely overwhelmed me and despite seeking outside therapies at two separate places (one of which could have been called “How to make a feeding problem worse”) and taking two months off of work to “do it myself, “ we have made such little progress that I have at times lost hope that I am capable of helping him. It should also be noted that he was accepted into the intensive feeding therapy program only to be denied by my insurance company. Don’t even get me started on that one!
Here are the mistakes that I’ve made that have led us to where we are today. My hope is that by getting them out into the world, I can stop beating myself up over them. I’m seeking liberation from my guilt so that I can refocus on Cooper and what he needs. Hopefully some of my mistakes can help other people go a different way. Get ready because it’s complicated!
Mistake #1: This is the big one so I’m getting it out of the way first. I forced him. I’m going to quit pretending I didn’t do this. There have been times over the last few years when I just put the food in his mouth despite his adamant refusal. I did it out of frustration. “Just eat the damn cracker!!! ” Nice. Yup. I did that to a little boy who had low oral/facial tone and didn’t know what to do with it once I shoved it in there or have the ability to manage it in his mouth. And I scared him. The thing is, I knew that he couldn’t manage it on his own. I was tired of nothing happening followed by nothing happening some more -- for months on end. My own frustration overwhelmed me and I tried to make him eat things he was not yet capable of eating. This is perhaps the thing I feel the most shameful about. I never held him down and flooded his mouth with food. I never put him in danger and I didn’t physically hurt him but I did bully him and it was borderline abusive and completely wrong and definitely contributed to his oral aversion. I have to own it and let it go because it is keeping me from being effective.
Mistake # 2: I over-encourage. Pressure can come from both positive and negative places. Forcing him to eat = negative. Throwing a freaking parade when he licks a spoon with puree on it = positive.
Both = pressure and pressure = refusal. When you over encourage you are essentially robbing a child of any intrinsic motivation to honor their own hunger. They are licking the spoon because they want you to cheer, not because they want to eat. And like all external motivation it doesn’t last. So the few times that he’s eaten tiny little bits of anything, I’ve cheered and danced and guess what? He won’t eat it again. It has happened so many times and I’ve banged my head against the wall (yes, literally) over why it doesn’t “take.” It doesn’t take because it’s not about the food. He just enjoys seeing me act a fool. Neutrality is the key. I have learned this recently and am working on it.
Mistake # 3: I’m inconsistent. Being a fulltime working single mom leaves me with a couple of problems. The first is that I’m not home with him during the day. I’ve not been able to effectively communicate my expectations to caregivers and for the first few years our daycare situation was so ridiculously complicated that there was almost no point. But I should have tried harder. The second is that by the time I get home, I am so tired (oh yeah, Cooper is also a terrible sleeper so most days start with minimal amounts of sleep from the night before) that some nights, I JUST CAN’T DO IT. I don’t have the patience to endure it (see #1). But consistency is the key. Opportunities to practice eating have to happen on a schedule and several times a day. Like every couple of hours…that’s a lot.
Mistake #4: I resorted to tricks. Get him laughing (which he does so well) and shove the spoon in there. Cross your fingers that he swallows it. Not even one time did this work. In fact, it resulted in him mistrusting me. To this day, he does not trust me around food. I am slowly building that trust. On a good day, he will let me touch his tongue with my index finger. Actually, last night he let me rub a back molar that is coming in. I was amazed. It has been a slow process of rebuilding trust and honestly, it’s still the case that if I am approaching his mouth, or even his face, with my hand, spoon, syringe, etc., he starts screaming as if I’m going to hurt him. That crushes me every time. It brings up all the mistakes that I made that contributed to his reacting that way. It’s exhausting.
Mistake #5: Not allowing him to experience hunger. When your child is not eating all you can think about is how they might die. I’m not exaggerating. It makes sense. If you don’t eat, you die. I still don’t trust that Cooper won’t let himself die of hunger. I have consistently undermined him by feeding him with his preferred method (bottle) whenever he indicated hunger rather than setting an appropriate schedule of meals and snacks and not feeding him his bottle on demand. Of course, until he is actually eating enough to be nutritionally sound he will need to be supplemented but I’ve not trusted that a little bit of hunger is ok and might just be what he needs to feel to start connecting to real food.
It's hard to not feel like a failure as a parent when your child won't eat. I feel like a failure. I wrote this hoping that it would help me overcome it because the feeling of failure is what continues to keep us in neutral.
Breathe. Trust. Breathe some more.