One of the most common topics of conversation and indeed concerns amongst mums in my mother’s circles has revolved around baby’s feeding issues. It starts off right after birth with worries such as ‘do I have enough milk?’, ‘is my baby getting enough to eat?’, ‘is it ok to give formula?’. This is perpetuated by the fact that practitioners seem to measure a child’s development at least in those early weeks mainly on weight gain. Fast forward a few months and anxieties start to grow about ‘when do I start my baby on solids’, ‘what foods can I give them?’, ‘what foods do I need to avoid?’, ‘Is my baby eating enough?’. And just to confuse us all, it is then suggested that we should be feeding our children whole foods that they can eat themselves and not puree that we can feed them from a spoon. And, indeed, food is certainly worthy of stress as we all try to give our babies the best nutritional start to life.
It is no surprise, therefore, that at some stage, our babies or toddlers are affected by some of our stress and may change their eating behaviours in response. This happened for us when our eldest daughter, Lucy, hit around 9 months of age (although, we certainly didn’t realise it at the time). Lucy was a pretty good eater but was never a big eater. I occasionally worried that she wasn’t getting enough food but generally she ate happily and without fuss. This all changed, however; seemingly overnight. Mealtimes became more akin to a battle field and those in charge of feeding her needed to ensure they were ‘suited up’ in appropriate apronware to repel the projectiles of food that soon flew through the air either by hand or straight out of her mouth! It became a very stressful time for all involved. It was only thanks to hindsight and an article highlighting changes that can happen with babies and their food, that I could see what may have happened to cause this shift in behaviour. And I have since set about making meal times peaceful once more using six helpful strategies.
At around the time food became an issue for us, Lucy had developed her first gastro bug. It was not overly serious but she had a night of vomiting followed by about two weeks of diarrhoea. Not being aware of the RIE approach to mealtimes, I had always fed Lucy as much as I could using distractions such as toys or keys or other objects to keep her attention whilst I spooned in as much as I could. At around the time she was sick, she went off her food almost altogether for a period of time. Concerned that she was not eating enough, I tried everything to get Lucy to eat her meals. I coerced her into taking ‘just one more mouthful’ with pleas of ‘come on darling, you like spaghetti’ and ‘if you eat this pea, you can have some apple puree’. It became a battle of wills fraught with emotions from us both. In her advice to another parent having the same issues with their toddler, Janet Lansbury had this to say, which helped me to see what might have been happening at our dinner table.
“Then something happened. Your guess is as good – or better – than mine: teething, a cold, a change of taste, or just a period of growth when Tessa didn’t have her usual appetite (children go through phases when they eat less). This change in Tessa’s eating caused her parents a teensy weensy bit of concern, her antenna picked up a “vibe” (with a toddler’s sixth sense, it doesn’t take much), and she felt some tension surrounding her and food.
Eating is an area Tessa controls and needs to control. She is the only one who knows when she’s hungry and when she’s full. She has to listen to her tummy and trust herself. Lately, mealtime has become a little too “loaded” for her to be able to listen. She’s not trying to torture you; she’s just feeling her power and playing her role, which is to resist anything she perceives as pressure”.
Having read this and the useful advice which came along with it, I set about turning mealtimes into a stress free activity once again using these 6 steps.
1. Taking the emotion out of the food
By celebrating when Lucy would eat a mouthful or by pleading with her to eat her food, she was learning to associate her food with power. She knew she could control the situation to get reactions out of me. Meal times was not about eating to satisfy hunger anymore but rather, a game, a time to test boundaries. By removing the emotion and simply presenting her with the food, Lucy has now learned that when she eats it is about filling her tummy, not playing. In particular, I am careful with the language I use when she starts to play with her food. If I see her playing, I state very matter of factly “I can see you are playing with your food. Have you finished eating? Would you like me to take your plate to the sink?” She then has the choice to continue eating her food or have me clear her plate. If the playing starts again, I remind her that “I won’t let her play with her food and if she is not hungry anymore, I will take the plate”. Using this, we now rarely have an issue with playing with food. Lucy will still occasionally test this limit but by staying calm and consistent in how we approach it, it never escalates to tantrums by her or anger by us.
2. Allowing Lucy to let me know when she has had enough
I have stopped trying to use ‘tricks’ to get Lucy to eat. When mealtimes are on, toys and other distractions are put away so the focus is on the food. I now trust her to let me know when she has had enough and even if she likes the food. I let her know that it is ok not to like everything and I try to take note of the healthy foods she does like such as broccoli and corn and try to give her extra of these. I never try to get her to eat more than she is happy to eat of her own accord.
3. Offering smaller portions of food
This is a great piece of advice. By giving her a small amount on the plate, it makes it seem less daunting for her to eat. If she finishes what’s there, I always have more ready to refill her plate. Often now, I will put just one small piece of the vegetables that I know she does not like eg 1 pea, 1 little cube of sweet potato. Some nights she leaves them, others she puts them in her mouth and bites down before spitting them out again and every so often will actually eat it. I love that she still has the opportunity to try these things and I know one day her tastes will mature and she will happily eat her vegetables.
4. Including a variety on the plate
I know myself that if I eat a plate of the same thing, I fill up pretty quickly, but then can find room for some garlic bread or dessert or something with a different taste. I figure it is the same for my kids. I always try to give Lucy a variety of tastes and textures so that when she gets sick of one thing, she can try something different.
5. Not trying to eat with the children
In her book ‘Dear Parents – Caring for Infants With Respect’, Magda Gerber suggests having dedicated meal times for children with adults eating separately later. I had always thought that eating a meal as a family was important and that the children would see us eating our food and try to emulate. The reality was always far from this, however. It seemed that the children picked up on the small moments of inattentiveness when we would go to take a mouthful and choose those times to upend the plate or knock the cup of water on the floor. It was never the picture book moments I had envisaged where we each discussed our day’s events. Meals are one of those caregiving times where being 100% present with the child is necessary for them to be happy in their independent play later. Trying to eat and be present, is very difficult. Usually the meals go cold all round!
6. Limit snacks between meals
This was a big one for us. Snacks were used regularly in our household to ‘buy time’ when I just needed to get the last of the washing on the line or get the bags packed for an outing or in the car to keep the kids happy and quiet. Since discovering a much more purposeful and respectful approach to parenting under the RIE philosophies, I now find I don’t need to use snacks in this way and as a pleasant side effect, I have noticed that Lucy eats much more heartily at meal times. Not having snacks at the ready throughout the day also helps to reinforce to her the importance of eating the food presented to her at meal times.
Overall, meal times are now a much more pleasant time in our household. Both our daughters enjoy having us present with them when they eat and power struggles are now few and far between.