What I've Learned in Food Therapy: Part 1 of 2

by andi

This sweet boy is named Eli.  He is my son. Eli has a problem: he doesn't like to eat.  At all.  Sure, most kids have some eating issues.  Feeding her children is one of the most time-consuming and frustrating things a mother does.  But this kid isn't the normal child with eating issues.  Oh no.  He hates eating.  He rarely, if ever, asks for food or drink.  In the rare event that he does ask for something, he asks for fruit snacks, candy, or chocolate milk.  Not exactly nutritious stuff.  Helping him find pleasure in eating has been one of my most challenging adventures in life.

It started when we introduced him to solids around 5 months old.  We started with rice cereal and baby food, just like experts suggest.  He didn't want anything to do with it.  We just figured he was a late bloomer and kept trying.  We tried offering him little pieces of what we were eating, or "table foods."  He didn't want anything to do with them either.  We tried letting him feed himself, but he wasn't interested.  As the months passed and he wasn't making much progress, our anxiety around his eating grew.  By the time he was about a year old, we knew there was a problem. He was more than just a "picky eater." He really didn't want to eat anything. Ever.

We talked to his pediatrician about his issues many times and he told us that if Eli got hungry enough, he would eat.  He challenged us to offer him food and drink multiple times a day, but to not push it if he didn't want anything.  We tried this and after almost 4 days of Eli not eating anything, we broke down and forced him to eat again.  We quickly learned that one of the only ways to get food in him was to play video clips on YouTube on our phones or read him books while he ate.  If he was distracted enough, we could shovel food into him almost without him noticing.

Meal time started to become very stressful because we would offer a variety of different foods in a variety of different ways, and we would always have the same result with Eli: he didn't want to eat.  It didn't matter what we offered, he refused.  As he got older, his problems only got worse.  As a toddler, he even started refusing to eat some of the foods that we could coax him to eat as a baby.  He never wanted to drink either.  Eli would even refuse our offers of cold drinks after running around with his friends outside for hours in the heat of summer.  I would worry when he would barely produce any urine all day and it would be a dark yellow color.  In desperation, we started giving him all of his fluid with a syringe because that was the only way to keep him hydrated.

I was convinced that there must be a medical explanation for Eli's lack of interest in food and drink, so I took him to the best specialists in town to try to pick their brains.  He saw a pediatric gastroenterologist at the local children's research hospital who ran all kinds of tests on him.  A barium swallow to see if he had a blockage in his esophagus.  The results came back normal.  A barium enema to see if the anatomy of his lower intestines was normal.  It was.  He even had an endoscopy, a procedure where his esophagus and stomach were examined with a tiny camera and biopsies were taken to test for food allergies, acid reflux, and celiac disease.  The results from this procedure were normal too.  While I was relieved that there was nothing "wrong" with my child, I was frustrated that no one could figure out why he wouldn't eat.  We took him to more doctors for second opinions and tried a slew of different vitamins, appetite stimulants, and probiotics.  Nothing seemed to make much of a difference.  He was finally diagnosed simply with "a broken appetite," or if you ask me, a diagnosis which means "We don't know what's wrong with your kid. Stop bugging us."

Eli was finally referred to a food therapist, and after months of haggling with our insurance company about whether the visits were "medically necessary," he was approved for 16 visits.  We have been taking him for the past 4 months and he is just finishing up his treatment.  While the therapy hasn't been a miracle cure, I'm happy to report that Eli has made some progress.  He still only eats a handful of foods, but he has added a few to his list while in feeding therapy. I'll be the first to admit that we got Eli into a lot of bad habits over the years in our desperate attempts to feed him, so half of what we're trying to do in therapy is repair all of the damage that we've done.

I know that we're not alone in this struggle.  Almost every parent I've talked to about this issue has shared with me that they've had frustrations with getting their kids to eat too.  I know for me, Eli's eating issues have been my biggest parenting challenge.  Every single bite at every single meal is a struggle and it's exhausting.  Eli and I both have a lot of progress to make and I'm no expert, but hopefully I can share a few things that will help you with feeding your own children. In my next post, I'd like to share some very specific tricks we've learned at therapy about how to help kids eat, but for now, I'm just going to share a few general rules we've learned.

  1. Be patient with your child.  For kids, eating is a lot more complex that just putting food in their mouths, chewing it, and swallowing it.  Textures, tastes, and temperatures can be intimidating for them, and it is a steeper learning curve for some than others.  As their parents, we need to be patient with them as they experiment and figure it all out.
  2. Relax. This one is so hard for me.  I constantly worry that Eli is not eating enough calories, not drinking enough ounces, not eating a big enough variety of foods, etc.  But I've learned that I can't control him. I can't make him eat if he doesn't want to, so I might as well relax about it.
  3. Try to make eating a pleasant experience. This can be hard, but it's important to praise your child along the way for what they will do instead of showing your frustration with what they won't do.
I can't wait to share some specific tricks with you soon!
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  1. Andrea, thanks so much for this post. I know this has been a struggle for you, and I'm sure that there is someone out there who needed to read this. xxoo

  2. Great post! As a mom to two boys with food allergies, I can relate to this. A lot. In fact, I just wrote a post about it today because it is Food Allergy Awareness Week! My middle child also saw a therapist to help with his texture issues. He also hated rice cereal from day 1. Turns out he was allergic to it and diagnosed with a rare food allergy called FPIES. Anyway, it has also been one of my biggest struggles as a mother because feeding your child is something so simple that all parents want to do. And, when there are struggles with it, it is more than just a little frustrating. It is exhausting because you just want a healthy, happy, thriving child. Hope that he continues to improve. Did doctors ever talk to you about possible food allergies? Maybe he is avoiding foods that are upsetting his tummy? Just a thought. Not to give you more to worry about. :) -Meredith

  3. My kids have been good eaters and feeding them is still the most stressful thing in the world. I am sure it is positively exhausting for you. I'm glad things are getting better!

  4. Our main jobs as moms is to feed, clothe and make sure our kids get sleep. It's amazing how difficult all those tasks are between ages 1 and 3! I look forward to reading what you learned from the therapist. Sounds like it's been quite the nightmare.


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