Friday, December 12, 2008

a question about feeding toddlers

You'd think this mother of 4 would have mastered simple tasks like feeding a toddler, wouldn't you? But the other day, I found myself pouring over the suggestions in What to Expect: The Toddler Years as eagerly as I ever did with my first child.

It's only recently that two of my closest friends were complaining about their toddler and young child not eating. "Oh, don't worry," I said breezily. "They're obviously healthy and growing. Clearly they're getting enough nutrients. Don't doctors say they will eat what they need to eat?"


Clearly I needed some humbling.

For here I am worrying because my 2 year old ate an average of 2 meals every day for the last week, that 80% of this was carbohydrate and 15% dairy, and that about 1cm of a vegetable and 3cm of meat passed his lips during this time.

Most days, I wake to an exhausting 1/2 hour of tantrums because he's hungry but doesn't want breakfast, eat dinner to the background noise of another 1/2 hour tantrum, and watch him eat nothing - nothing! - at lunchtime. He must eat something. I think it might be some dry noodles and a few biscuits in the afternoon.

My first child was as fussy as they come (no foods touching, no visible veges, and bread with chocolate spread - ouch! - for school lunches for 2 long years). My next 2 children happily ate just about anything, especially veges. But number 4, while cute as a button, is proving to be a challenge.

He hates monotony, but despises variety. He eats erratically, occasionally, and frugally. He'd happily subsist on milk, tomato sauce and icecream.

And can he throw a tantrum! His darling 10 year old sister runs to give him attention every time he cries, bless her motherly heart, which really doesn't help. He stands there wailing, alternating "Mummy! I want Mu-u-mmy!" and "Lizzy! I want Li-i-zzy!" depending on who is giving him the most attention.

Children are great levellers. Every time I'm getting proud - about my children's sleep patterns, their obedience, their sweetness - they turn around and remind me that they, and I, are far from perfect. One of the best things about having 4 children is that there is always 1, and often 2 or 3, who keep you humble. Sometimes they all gang up and humble me at once.

Anyhow, back to the topic at hand. Here are some of the approaches I've tried so far. Most worked for a time, then proved remarkably (unsurprisingly?) ineffectual. They show what an otherwise sensible but desperate parent will stoop too. You'll find most of these roundly criticised in parenting books:

  • Read to Andrew while I surreptitiously put food in his mouth.
  • Do jigsaws with Andrew while I surreptitiously put food in his mouth.
  • Put Andrew in front of the television and surreptitiously put food near him, hoping he'll eat without noticing.
  • Pander to any and all demands during mealtimes ("Climb on Mummy? Sure! Eat on the couch? Absolutely! Eat upside down with your toes? Why not?!")
  • Play trains - "Here comes the choo-choo" - actually, I've only done this twice, he just chuckles and regards me with withering disdain.
  • Get Andrew to look at me - "LOOK at me!" - and answer the question, "Toast, porridge, or cereal?" Mulish expression. Silence. I guess what he wants. I guess wrong.
  • Offer Andrew several plates of left-over breakfast to choose between. ("Lizzy's porridge? Andrew's cereal? Benny's crusts?") Surprisingly, this sometimes works.
  • Always eat with Andrew. This on the principle that "Monkey see, monkey do." Monkey doesn't do.
  • Stand in front of the pantry holding Andrew so he can see the contents, and offer him anything and everything healthy that he might want. "Biscuits? Ricecakes? Cereal? Peanut butter? Sprinkles?" He doesn't want.
  • Put plates of cut-up veges on the floor near Andrew which he happily ignores.
  • Make Andrew healthy lunches which he happily ignores.
  • Make Andrew healthy breakfasts and dinners which he unhappily ignores.
  • Ignore Andrew as he screams. Keep eating. Stay calm - on the outside. Inside, I'm joining him on the floor.
  • Put Andrew in his cot when he throws a tantrum during mealtimes. Get him out and threaten, "Bed or eat?" Put him back in bed. Get him out. Put him back. Give up.
  • Distract Andrew. "Let's read a book, darling. You don't want to read a book? How about a cuddle and a tickle. No? More crying? Why don't you watch while I tear out my hair? That would be enjoyable and instructive."
  • Carry Andrew around while I get the other children's food ready. Put him down when I need to use a knife. Pick him up when he whines and clings to my leg. Put him down when I need to measure the porridge. Pick him up when he wails.
  • Get impatient. Tell Andrew, "You really need to eat NOW! Can't you just sit down and EAT? COME ON, you can't survive on nothing!" Actually, this isn't a strategy, it's an expression of extreme frustration.
  • Feed Andrew daily vitamins because he's not eating any vitamins of the natural kind.
I know what the books say, of course. Never fight with your child over food. Never punish a child for not eating. Never bribe a child with sweet food (ha!). Only offer healthy food choices. If your child won't eat, cheerfully say, "That's ok, honey, you go and play now."

Never fill your child up on junk or milk. Never feed your child while he's watching TV. Never show your child you care whether he eats or not. Present food attractively. Don't offer too much food. Hide food inside other food. Feed your child before he gets hungry. Feed your child when he's hungry. When your child is really hungry, he will eat.

Ha. Ha. Ha.

I hear the dulcet tones of my son in his cot warming up for his early-morning tantrum. Gotta go now.

So has anyone else got any ideas? What have you found "works" with a toddler who's reluctant to eat?

images (apart from the photo of my darling Andrew) are from sock.xchng


Rachael said...

Hi Jean, I've tagged you to do this meme. Don't feel obliged... but I'd really like to hear what you think are the most important things you've learnt over the year. You don't have to stop at six...

Rachael said...

Regarding toddlers and food? I have no magic formulas. None of my kids have been fantastic lunchtime eaters. I would take your own advice and not let it worry you. Or you could see it as a bigger issue.

Jean said...

Hmmm... interesting ... I'll have to ponder that some more. Maybe we could open this one up to debate on "in all honesty"?!

Caroline said...

Just a quick thought for the moment - have you had him tested for coeliac disease? I know it's probably not related, but in my experience with kids with food intolerances (I cater for a number of different food intolerances in our house, including a coeliac husband), once you get the physical issue sorted out, their eating becomes much less disordered. Though I have resorted to serving pureed soup for lunch every day to make sure my youngest ate at least one proper meal, and I found that once he was better nourished, he also started eating more variety at the rest of his meals. Obviously this is no good if he won't eat soup! Also, in our experience, if all he really wants to eat is milk and tomato sauce, these are quite likely to be the foods that he reacts to (I know thats not very comforting, sorry, but I've seen it happen).

Rachael said...

a can of worms, do you think?

Jean said...

Yes, we're about to get him tested for coeliac disease, funny you should suggest that, Caroline!! His dad and sister are coeliacs, so this could be it.

Rachael - definitely a can of worms. One I might open (just to hear what people think) but not one I plan to close at this stage! Still, thanks for the thought-provoking link. What do you think of this approach to children's eating, by the way?

Very much "modern relaxed parenting" vs. "Tripp obedience in all things", isn't it? I'm all for obedience and discipline - but I've never been sure eating is the place to enforce it with a toddler.

We certainly strongly encourage our older ones to finish what's on their plate, and we expect them to eat the things they don't like. I admit we use that technique equally condemened by both sides - "No eating, no dessert". And if they whinge about their food, it's to their room they go! Very effective, but not very useful for a 2 year old.

Simone R. said...

Tomato sauce is very healthy. Great protection against prostate cancer!

I've no problems with the 'bradshaw' approach (it was my preferred method) but I wouldn't make it so life-and-death as they do.

Gordon Cheng said...

Matilda, I think it was, used to carry a piece of food in her mouth for up to half an hour, or whenever we took it out, whichever came first.

No great advice really. You could just try waiting 6 months and seeing what happens ;-)

Valori said...

Jean – I think that parents could go either way with these things (referring to Rachael’s post above), but I will share our practice and perspective over the years. We decided with our first not to make eating a discipline issue, not because of any kind of advice from the doctor, but simply because there were so many other opportunities to draw lines and train for obedience. Maybe part of it was simply that we didn’t want all the battles at meal time – our first son loved to challenge authority! Also, I knew enough about nutrition that I always felt I could somehow get the main nutrients in through the foods he did like. Then, around age 4, when obedience was more established and he could reason a lot better, we started telling him that he had to eat all of his food or he couldn’t have bread (we have definitely used the no dessert approach, too). And if he chose not to do that, it was fine, he just wouldn’t have any more food that night.

These strategies worked very well with the first four boys, but boy number 5 was a different story altogether. He, like your son, didn’t seem to like enough food to be able to come up with the basic nutrients, and he also got very constipated. He ate no meat, no fruit except raisins, and no vegetables – didn’t even like juice (until I discovered he would drink it out of the cute little boxes even though he didn’t like it in a sippy cup). He did prefer whole wheat bread over white bread, so that was interesting! But overall, we stuck with the old plan – I just had to be “creative.” Another problem was that by the time he got a little older we couldn’t motivate him with bread because he never wanted rolls or bread with butter! But, by God’s grace, when he was near four years, and we began to tell him he had to eat his dinner, he did obey us (with help as we delivered it to his mouth), but again, he wasn’t in the middle of those “2” years when any little command can produce a challenge to authority. Another thought on that is that even though he wasn’t eating well (and had constipation issues), he wasn’t malnourished, and I was always amazed that he was as healthy and active as he was! It’s nice to know that peanut butter sandwiches and cheese with crackers are both good protein sources. He also lived on Ovaltine (don't know if that's something you have in Australia or not) because of the vitamins and nutrients in there, and I began to add a little fiber into his chocolate milk.

Anyway, that was just our experience, and I know a lot of people would handle these things differently, even among my close friends, so I really do think it’s a preference issue, and I trust the Lord will give you the wisdom you need for your family and your special little boy! (And, by the way, he's very cute!)

Rachael said...

My children are only young. I cannot speak from experience and I haven't even read all the theories. In fact I studiously avoid reading parenting books.

We definitely believe in obedience and discipline, but we have never made eating meals the place to enforce it. We didn't make eating an issue of obedience, at that age. We have as they get older (3-4), particularly in relation to vegetables, and funnily enough, the laxity in their toddler years doesn't seem to have led to them being particularly fussy eaters or to being disobedient in other parts of life.

We tend to make how they eat an issue of obedience, rather than what they eat (like eating at the table and not whenever and wherever they want, sitting up, using a spoon and not grizzling). If we did make what they eat an issue of obedience, then I can't see how you could avoid the "Bradshaw" experience, because once you've made it an issue of obedience, I think you have to follow through.

Jean said...

Thankyou, everyone. I actually feel like crying because you have all been so sympathetic and helpful - I was scared of being judged for being such an appalling parent in this instance! (Of course, it never feels like that at the time, but reading through all those ridiculous approaches I've tried makes me sound vascillating and inconsistent.) So thank you all for understanding and advising me.

Valori, your boy number 5 sounds like our boy number 3 - not that he was as resistant to eating as no. 4, but because he became more trainable with age, and there was a long stage when I had to feed him to get him to eat (very embarrassing with a 4 year old, but it worked).

And Rachael, I like the how vs. what distinction. I agree: you can control how a child eats, but I'm not sure I want to make an obedience issue out of what they put in their mouth, especially when they're 2. Like you, I agree you have to follow through, and I don't think I want to do this with food.

You'll all be interested that - as so often happens in parenting! - I reached an epiphany after writing that post (nothing like desperation) and I've been ignoring the tantrums, not trying to coax Andrew to eat, just acting like I don't mind (very calm!) and waiting until he settles down before I feed him. The tantrums are increasing in length (as you would expect when you completely ignore them - my guess is they'll get worse than better) but eating has been better - not more food, just more calmly eaten. I'll keep you posted ...

Bec said...

Hi Jean!
Food is such a control thing with toddlers, it's one of the few things in their life that they can control and usually produces a good response form parents LOL. We have had a very simple plan of attack with all 5 of children (we try to be consistent :-)), that we implement as soon as solid food is introduced - 3.5 months for our littlies (shock, horror, I know!). Food is only eaten at the 3 set meal times, morning/afternoon tea is only offered occasionally & usually when we are out/have guests. All food offered must be eaten before 'dessert'; even our baby must eat vegies before fruit even if it is only 3 or 4 spoonfuls. We serve realistic portions based on our children's eating habits and preferences, although I do insist they have at least 1 of something that may not be their 'favorite'. I want to encourage them to eat what is in front of them (and they can ask for more!) rather than them be discouraged by the 'mountain' of food on their plate. We also try and stick to a 20 minute time limit. If you can't finish in that time your plate is removed, and of course, not finished - no 'dessert'.

It may sound fairly strict, but I am a very fussy eater myself, and I know I was indulged by my very well-meaning and loving father, so I am wary of my kids going down the same path. Luckily they all seem to take after my husband and will pretty much eat anything remotely edible! Having said that, battles frequently arise (particularly with 1 dawdling daughter with a distate for soup...), but having these boundaries in my mind helps me be emotionally detatched from the present battle of wills.

I haven't had a toddler really 'dig in' for an extended period of time, though, so maybe I would act differently in such a circumstance. Good luck!! And remember, you'll look back and realise it wasn't that long a time or hard a battle, etc - isn't the rose-coloured memory (perspective!) a wonderful thing :-).

Jean said...

Sounds very, very sensible, Bec. I think it would work just fine: less fussing, some meals missed, but just as much eaten in the long run! I might put it into action once the terrible tantrums have subsided.

Jean said...

And yes, don't you love rose-coloured memories? ... Tantrums? Oh no, none of our children really had tantrums!

Pam said...

Hi Jean,

Other people have said a lot of what I was thinking, especially Caroline re the food intolerances. We have intolerances here and I've always been reluctant to force them to eat something they don't like as it can be the thing they react to- equally true as what Caroline said about the food they crave being what they react to! Seems like we can't win, eh?

Just some "hiding food" tricks as, hopefully, an interim measure:

You can hide lots of things in muffins. Add in vegies in blended form or very finely chopped and then cover the disgusting evidence with fruit flavours or vanilla or maple syrup perhaps. Maybe make the tiny little muffins so they go in in one bite?

You can hide lots of things in smoothies. If you use eggs you are sure of you can add them in for protein. Add some greenery, some other veggies and blend like fury and then cover them up with banana or whatever.

If this works, you can freeze some as ice blocks.

Carrot Cake? Banana Cake? With dates so he isn't overloading on sugar?

Does he like rice? How about cooking that in stock rather than plain water? Make mashed potato with stock?

You get the idea, I'm sure. Seek ways to add more of the good stuff to what he will already eat. Eggs in porridge; make your own bread with egg in it (no good if he is coeliac is it!) I have a good recipe for ice cream if you are happy to have raw eggs. Come to think of it, you can just make an old fashioned custard ice cream, that has eggs in it.

(I'm not really fixated on eggs; it's just that they are easier to hide than meat!)

Great idea going for the calm approach. I guess you could make sure he is really hungry, too. Keep being calm if he doesn't eat and just try again later when he really is hungry. Well, it works in theory.

Someone once said to me to think of what they eat over a week rather than a day. This can be more encouraging and realistic. I swear they can live on air at times.

Valori said...

I agree with you, Rachael, and I like Bec's ideas, too. Still, we tried a little of a similar tactic with our 5th son, and he really would have preferred not to have eaten anything at all and would have been happy. I had a hard time seeing him so exhausted and weak from not eating! Now, however, he does eat fine -- a little of everything on his plate, and he has to have fruit at lunch. I also agree that it is good to be in charge of how, when, and what they eat -- until they are teens, that is!

Jean, have you considered trying to deal with the tantrums as a separate issue? Something like, "It's okay if you choose not to eat, but you may not throw a tantrum like that no matter what." I know that's another whole discussion (what to do about tantrums) but it's just a question I had for you.

mattnbec said...

I'm encouraged by all these responses. We too have made food much more of an issue as our daughter as grown older (3+) but didn't worry too much before that. She too needs to be spoon-fed on occasions. And we do the 'no dinner, no dessert' thing.

I was also encouraged to hear a GP say that she had a friend whose child ate bread, tomato sauce and one other thing for the first 10 years of his eating-life and was now a healthy, normal young adult. Phew! :-)

I've noticed that food became much more of an issue as our two developed preferences, but have figured irrational 18-month-2.5 or 3 year olds have bigger issues that need addressing. We decided it was more of an issue once they were old enough to reason with a bit more.


Jean said...

Hi, everyone, enjoying all your insights!

Valori, yes, tantrums are generally a separate issue, except for Andrew, food has become the trigger i.e. as soon as he realises he's about to be encouraged to eat, he turns on the tantrum switch (and believe me, it's a switch - on, then off again and straight into cheefulness).

Since Friday(!) I've been completely ignoring him while he's having a tantrum, not coaxing him to eat while he's having one, not offering food until he's stopped, and letting him refuse to eat, and it's proving remarkably effective (I say this after 3 days, so we'll see ... ). One brief tantrum at lunchtime today, then he obviously thought to himself, "Rats, this isn't getting me any attention at all", sat up and ate his toast (in that sense, not like your son at all - that must have been so tough, watching him not eat).

Oh, the delights of the 2 year old mind.

Bec said...

Glad to hear you've had a good 3 days! I agree with Pam, definitely think about what is eaten in a week rather than a single day (particularly in this 'party season' when fruit or vegies may not pass the lips in a single weekend!). And don't worry if your child is big/small/fat/skinny, just worry if they seem healthy and active. My kids eat a huge amount and yet they are pint-sized, while I have friends struggling to get food into the mouths of their chubby toddlers! Genetics can certainly play a part.

Separating the tantrums from the eating of food, as Valori said, is also good as it makes the behaviour the issue and not the food. My kids (should) know that Mummy is not a chef at a restaurant so they have no choice over WHAT they eat, but can choose IF they eat - and the consequences if they don't eat, no dessert, hunger until the next meal, etc.
Generally the kids have been pretty good at accepting the consequences as they know it is the path they have chosen. I have had more than one child not allowed to eat morning tea at playgroup as they did not eat breakfast and therefore had to wait until lunch, and they 'happily' accepted this, not even asking if they could have something. I'm sure the other mums thought I was the 'mean one' but I'll live with that tag if it means loving my children (see, I've been reading all your posts, Jean LOL). Stay clam and consistent and I'm sure it will all work out in the end.

Caroline said...

sorry, Jean, I should have mentioned that I knew you had coeliac disease in the family, that's why I thought of it. I don’t always connect toddler eating habits with food intolerances. When my husband was first diagnosed, he had quite a few other intolerances which caused him almost as severe symptoms as gluten, but after a few years gluten-free, he doesn't have to be nearly as careful what he eats, so long as it's GF.

As to the linked article, I'd agree that the matter of eating a particular item might not be the place to enforce obedience, because as Rachael has said, once you make it a matter of obedience, you have to follow through. It seems strange, also, to me, because as Christians, what we eat is a matter of freedom, and maybe our children should have some freedom too in this area. After all, we were created with different tastes.

When God put Adam in the garden, he told him he was free to eat from any tree (except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil). I think that food is one of God's blessings, and it would be a shame to make it an unpleasant chore.

Our practice has been to have one or two family meals a day, and everyone is served the same meal, though I don't expect the children to eat things they really don't like, but I do expect them to try them every now and again. Everyone is expected to sit properly at the table, eat as neatly as they can and make suitable conversation (the standard of these things obviously
varies depending on the age of the child).

My first three sons all happily eat a wide variety of foods. I did have to enforce a "no eating between meals" policy for my youngest son, as I found he was filling up between meals and not eating a balanced diet. He didn't like it very much, but it made him much hungrier at mealtimes! So I suppose that is an example of teaching obedience in the matter of NOT eating!

Anyway, I've enjoyed reading this discussion, there are lots of good ideas and experiences here. Thank you.

Jean said...

It's amazing how much discussion this has generated!

Caroline, I like what you say about food and freedom - helpful linking it to God's word like that, not just a psychological theory.

One more thing about eating between meals: this is quite essential in our family, at least for our older 2 kids. Lizzy has an extremely high metabolism and gets very irritable when she has low blood sugar. She needs afternoon tea to make it through to dinner. Ben is a bit the same. The littlies don't need this extra meal, but the older ones do. The advantage of afternoon tea after school is that we don't get those 5.00 grumpies.

So again, this is situational: some kids do better without, some with, eating between meals.

And it sounds like most of us do the same: allow for the children's preferences in the food we serve them, but insist (in most cases - I don't force brussel sprouts on my daughter, or cheese on my son) that they eat a little of what they don't like, and quite a bit of what they tolerate. Funny how similar and different all our approaches are!

Valori said...

Well, Jean, I never did suffer too much from watching him not eat because once I realized that he would prefer to fast, I decided not to take that approach, and I just tried to get food into him! Maybe one day the Lord will use him to fast and pray for others! His body can obviously survive and little food :).

Anonymous said...

Hi Jean!
I know I said I was signing off from blog lurking until after Christmas - and I had - but I was lamenting to a friend about our youngest who will not eat fruit or vegetables AT ALL. Fortunutely he will drink juice and I have taken to giving him good quality juice to try and get some of those essential vitamins into him. However his very narrow eating has been of an increasing concern to me. And as I lamented, my friend asked me if I had been reading this post and the associated comments. So I am back.

And I am so so SO grateful for everything everyone has said and wanted to say most especially thankyou to Valori. Your wise advice of doing what you can (eg. valuing cheese and crackers, peanut butter and ovaltine)and whilst not giving up, hanging out until the said child has reached a more rational age (8 months until his fourth birthday!!!!) and then tackle it in a more rational manner is music to my ears and balm to my soul. THis is the BEST bit of parenting advice I think I have heard in my nearly six years of motherhood. THankyou.

Love Meredith xx

Valori said...

Meredith -- I'm glad the Lord could turn our challenging time with feeding our little guy into a means of encouragement to you!

mattnbec said...

Oh Meredith, my sympathies!

On a similar, though different note to all this discussion - a funny story. My brother refused to eat at all until he was about two, I think. My poor Mum couldn't find anything he would eat and was fully breastfeeding him! The doctor just told her he was perfectly healthy and that she should come back if he still refused to eat solids when he was about to go to school! Then, one day, he was playing outside with a friend. She came crying to her mum and pointing to my brother. Both mums went to join the kids playing outside to discover my brother eating the ginger-nut biscuit his little friend had been eating!! Jealousy finally made him eat and from that day onwards, he was running around with a bit of ham in one hand and cheese in the other etc!!


CarofromSydney said...

Our first son was a very small child (lower 10th percentile) and hated food and hated eating. Being a first time mother, i was so stressed. I tried almost everything (your dot points brought back bad memories!). I remember cooking multiple meals because he'd refused the first one, then the 2nd one, then the 3rd one....etc. I didn't think it was a discipline issue because he was so young. However when he was about 18 months old I'd had enough. I was completely worn out (& i only had the one child). One day we just decided we'd do what you said James Dobson suggested. We offered him porridge in the morning. He didn't want it, so we put it back in the fridge. Offered it again at lunch. He didn't want it, so back in the fridge. I think by dinner i actually did cook up a new batch because it grossed me out, however by dinnertime he was digging away and ate the whole bowl.
That was the start of his good eating habits. It really was a turning point - i think i had to come to the realisation that no normal healthy child would purposely starve to death (Though have read of children with certain conditions that WILL starve themselves... so this method obviously wont work with everyone).
Now he is 4 years old, still on the small side but very healthy. I very rarely give him anything unhealthy, & don't usually let him snack between meals. He only eats 3 solid meals, and we have continued with our method where if he doesn't want it, then that is fine, he gets it the next meal. He is the best eater of his age that i know. He will eat everything. People think that it's cruel that we do this to him (But it's not like i'm feeding him food i wouldnt eat myself!) but i dont think children need junk or snacks if they are not going to be eating their normal meals.
It is also funny that my 2nd son, has no eating problems whatsoever and eats like an adult. I thought i'd had it all sorted with the first and was going to use the same methods with the 2nd but didn't need to :)