It’s the easiest thing in the world to judge other people’s parenting. I was particularly guilty of this before I became a Mum. “Kid throwing a tantrum in a shop? Spoilt brat! Baby crying? Make it stop! Toddler who eats Turkey Dinosaurs? Shame on the parents for serving him processed food! I’ll never do that when I’m a parent.”
Fast forward 10 years and I’m asking my 4 year old what she wants for dinner. “Stegosaurus or T-Rex?” Yep, we’re fully stocked up on Turkey Dinosaurs in our house. Chicken Dippers? Fish Fingers? Potato Smiles? Bring ’em on. Because it takes being a parent of an Orally Defensive child to realise it’s an achievement if you can actually get them to eat anything.
My daughter Olivia has Sensory Processing Issues – simply put, her senses don’t work the same as other people. Some of her senses are turned up to number eleven – her hearing for example, touch and taste – whereas others are virtually none-existent (she has never smelled or commented on the smell of anything). Now she’s been diagnosed it all makes perfect sense, but when she was weaning I struggled in despair.
As a newborn she suffered from Silent Reflux – baby heartburn is the simplest way to put it – and her three months of solid screaming left me a gibbering wreck until our brilliant Health Visitor pinpointed the cause. I was told these little refluxers often have a stronger gag reflex and sure enough, Olivia couldn’t tolerate lumpy baby food at all. One day after gagging, she simply refused all spoon fed food and we had to switch to finger foods overnight.
It was processed marrowfat peas that saved the day; we watched enthralled as she carefully ate them one by one. We graduated slowly to pasta spirals, scrambled egg, yoghurt and strawberries, but then hit another plateau. Things that other babies gobbled up with glee left my daughter cold.
We’ve all seen those Facebook pics of babies in a high hair covered head-to-toe in Spag Bol. Olivia wouldn’t even touch a single strand. Mashed potato made her shudder and she recoiled with horror at the sight of courgette. I tried disguising food, cutting it into tiny pieces, blending it, serving it hot, cold, making it into a face on the plate. I even bought a minuscule star cutter and spent hours making tiny carrot constellations. I watched agog as my friend’s 2 year old bolted down poached salmon and broccoli for a snack – cold. What was I doing wrong?
One day, having spent another miserable dinner time doing impressions of Hungry Henry from BabyTV, distracting and cajoling Olivia to no avail, I simply picked up her plastic plate and threw it, like a frisbee, across the room. As food flew off in all directions, her look of horror made me feel like absolute shit. What’s more, I felt sure her refusal to eat was All My Fault. In other words, an #EpicParentFail.
Things changed when I went back to work part-time and Olivia started at the childminders. One day, Lucy rang me and said she’d had a breakthrough. “Guess what? She loves Turkey Dinosaurs!” Turkey what? Oh God. They’re by Bernard Matthews aren’t they? The type of food Jamie Oliver rages about? What had happened to my dream child who ate vegetable crudites dipped in organic hummus?
Once I got over the shock and the shame, I decided I would just have to roll with it. I expanded our repertoire to include some freezer friendly products that would have Jamie weeping into his organic pesto. I began to realise that if the only way my child will consume a potato is in the form of a smiley face, that’s fine. I might not be able to get Olivia to eat a perfectly balanced, organic homemade diet. But as long as she is eating something, we’re doing OK.
I still feel sad when I see how relaxed and comfortable other kids are around food. I’m jealous of friends who can casually drop into a café on the spur of the moment and eat as a family, without having to take a separate packed lunch for their child. And when another mum laughed at the said packed lunch remarking “Goodness! I’ve never seen such tiny sandwiches!” I suddenly realised how different my child was.
Having just started school, Olivia is the only child in her class not to have school dinners. She tells me with great enthusiasm what her classmates ate for lunch, but when she is offered the same food to try she refuses point-blank. Her new childminder has given up trying to include her at mealtimes, after she rejected pasta for being the wrong shape, ketchup for being the wrong flavour (not Heinz) and baked beans for being “too hot”. Instead Olivia eats a late dinner at home.
So what does the future hold for us, and for other parents struggling at mealtimes? Yesterday, an item about picky eating on BBC news made me prick up my ears. It suggested that maybe my child’s fussiness is not my fault.
“I didn’t spoil my daughter. I didn’t wean her the wrong way, or with the wrong food. Instead, it could all be her genes.”
New research carried out by University College London on 1,900 sets of twins found that 46% of food fussiness and 58% of food neophobia (fear of new foods) was down to their genetics.
I’ve also learned recently that “picky eating” can go hand in hand with sensory issues and also being on the autistic spectrum (Olivia has suspected Social Communication Disorder). We are awaiting a referral to a Food Therapist. Until then, the best I can do is keep offering my daughter a variety of foods and try to stay relaxed about it.
If you are struggling with a fussy eater, whether they have special needs or not, here is my advice to you:
1) Do not blame yourself. As Selfish Mother rightly reminds us, we are all just Winging It. You are a Mum, or Dad, doing your best. You can lead a child to organic homemade pasta pesto, but you can’t make them eat.
2) Give them foods they like. Children find comfort and reassurance in familiarity. Going in gung-ho with a whole plate of strange food is a recipe for disaster.
3) Offer new food as a side dish on a separate plate. Children find this less threatening.
4) Don’t pressure your child to eat new food. Do not show your disappointment or anger if they don’t eat it. Don’t say “It’s this dinner or nothing”. Do not withhold pudding as a punishment.
5) Dipping sauces can help. Yes we all know Ketchup is full of sugar, but it can make the taste of an unfamiliar food less scary. My Paediatrician also suggested yoghurt or hummus as an alternative.
6) Eat with your child. Many toddlers go through a phase where they reject unfamiliar food as a survival mechanism. Watching Mum or Dad eat it first reassures them that it’s safe.
7) Don’t give up. Sometimes it can take 15 goes for a child to accept a new food.
8) Ask for help. If your child’s diet is severely restrictive, they’re not gaining weight as they should, or you’re constantly crying into their mashed potato, it might be time to see your GP and ask for a referral.
Well, look at that – it’s teatime! I hope my honest account of parenting a fussy eater will help others going through mealtime hell. And if you were horrified at the thought of Turkey Dinosaurs, I hope now you’ll understand why for some of us, they’re a last resort. Try not to be judgemental. Right, I’m off to put the oven on 200. Stegosaurus anyone?
Rebellious Mum is not sponsored by any of the brands mentioned in this article.
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