Feeding Issues go right to the core of being a parent. Being able to feed your child well, helping them to grow well and be fit, is almost the first duty and the first privilege of being a parent. Even today when men share the responsibility for cooking in many cultures, it still seems that women want to be the ones to nourish their babies.
Being able to feed your child well is critical to being a good parent, to enable your child to grow and be well and healthy. And although it is easy to find articles explaining what a child needs to eat, it is much harder to find how to get them to eat a healthy diet. This article explains how to wean your baby, how to deal with the rejection of some foods and total dependence on others, how to fit healthy eating into a happy family life, and when it matters. It also discusses which foods are likely to make a child hyperactive, how to help the child who uses food as a control issue, and how to deal with the child who only ever eats peanut butter sandwiches.
Feeding a new baby is relatively easy. If it is possible, breast feeding is generally agreed to be the best for a baby. Breast milk is readily available, convenient, comes at the right temperature and provides a measure of protection against many diseases in the critical first few months. Research shows that small babies who become familiar with tastes before three months are more likely to happily enjoy a range of flavours later. The assumption is that they are becoming familiarised before they form judgements regarding tastes – so the baby who is breast fed by a mum who eats and drinks a variety of food is likely to be easier to feed later. It is often not mentioned that breast fed babies wake more often in the night, and might use the breast as a comforter rather than for food, but this seems a small price to pay for the benefits gained.
Of course, some women are unable to breastfeed, and it may not accommodate to the parent’s lifestyle. Babies who are bottle-fed seem to do OK! but are missing out on the advantages of varied tastes… I think it is invidious to cite research regarding the long-term benefits and disadvantages of bottle or breast-feeding as, inevitably, the research refers to formula established twenty years or more ago.
Although some children prove sensitive to cows (i.e. bottled milk) and need a non-dairy alternative, problems more often start with the transition to solids. Some children seem to find some textures unpleasant; some dislike lumps and have to progress very gently from milk to slightly thicker ‘smooth’ food before attempting larger lumps like bits of cabbage or mashed potato or baby rice.
Other children have sensitive palates and find strong flavours difficult, it is particularly common to find that children dislike slippery food like onions and mushrooms. However, babies in different cultures become accustomed to different flavours – curry, sushi and pickles are common in the diets of many small children and quite alien in others. Many of these babies will have experienced the flavours when being breast fed but a baby’s response has as much to do with the attitude of the person feeding the baby as with the taste itself. This also explains why so many parents find themselves making silly, smiley noises as they feed their babies – it is a good idea to encourage your baby with ‘mmmm, here comes some more yummy carrot etc.
Toddlers and Food
Most feeding difficulties seem to begin when the baby becomes a toddler.
There are two reasons for this:
At this stage, the child becomes physically independent – he is able to move by himself and access anything and everything. He is also at the stage of exploring most things with his mouth, so is likely to put strange things [including worms and toilet cleaners etc] in his mouth, and it seems to be part of human design that the child becomes wary of unfamiliar food, and unlikely to take dangerous risks. Risk-averse is sensible when he is likely to encounter berries, and other pretty things that could do harm.
It is also the stage at which many children choose to exert their independence and exercise a measure of control over their environment – eating is an easy context in which to be an individual. The toddler can show his mettle and refuse to eat anything or certain foods, take a very long time to eat or be very, very messy.
Small children are exclusively fed by others. As they get older, they learn to deal with finger food, and later still, they are introduced to spoons and other cutlery. Some things occur by chance – Dominic is 16 months and just came across spare ribs for the first time. He loves them, holds them in his hand and gnaws with enormous pleasure. Other children love to mash up banana with a spoon and then scoop it up with their hands. Much of early feeding is to do with encouraging your child to take a wide range of tastes, flavours and textures and allowing them to take pleasure in food. Managing cutlery and eating nicely can come a little later.
If it is possible, encourage your child to sit with you while you eat – in an ideal world, it should be possible for your toddler to eat with you, to have food like Mum and Dad eat so that he can learn by imitation. Often the family can make weekends a time for family meals – in this situation, the child often is pleased to be like the grown-ups and imitate their behaviour.
The design feature which stops the child from trying random things and risking poisoning, is the same design feature that stops them trying the new foods that you have placed on their plate. But if the child can see other people trying and enjoying these new foods, he, too, is much more likely to try the foods and probably learn to like them.
Obviously, if you want your child to eat, you do not give the child crisps, biscuits and fruit before the main meal. Make sure the child is hungry, then sit them at the table with you, put the same type of food in front of your toddler and give them the chance to be like Mummy and Daddy. It’s often easy to offer a snack earlier because the child is whinging but if you want your child to eat, make sure s/he is hungry and then offer food that looks attractive and tastes very nice. Small children always eat better in the company of bigger people and often in the company of other small children – some find this distracting initially but soon settle and eat like the others.
What if they will only eat tomato soup and peanut butter sandwiches. It is terrifying as a parent to discover that your child will only eat a very restricted diet. Usually the parent tries to tempt the child by all sorts of lovely foods, sometimes even offering a bribe of a treat or a trip if the food is tasted. This is a very rational beginning – research shows that older children have to taste foods about ten times before accepting a new flavour. But I have known a child who only ate tomato soup for a year -and I mean Only – and thrived; another had a diet of chips and peanut butter sandwiches for most of his childhood and was physically very well. We are encouraged to give our children a balanced diet, but it is important to remember that other cultures do not eat meat, or drink milk and yet appear to be healthy. It is easy to forget that baked beans are packed with protein. The most obvious place to test out theories like this is on holiday – very many of us take the soft option on holiday, allowing our conservative children to eat chicken and chips on a daily basis so that we can go to nice restaurants and eat local delicacies. The children thrive. An important rule is to check whether the child is growing, putting on weight, seems fit and healthy. If all that is happening, then you are not going far wrong – check with a dietician just in case, but usually all will be well.
People are programmed to eat a healthy diet. Many years ago an experiment was done where children were allowed to eat as they chose for about six months. Although most children began with sweet stuff, by the end of the period, they had all eaten a good balance of nutrients. Most animals are attracted to and enjoy eating sweet stuff, and young humans are no exception – but children have been found to steal the food their body needs. Children steal fruit from the market before sweets, if their body is in need. Parents are normally in charge of bringing food into the house. They are the people who decide what will be in the fridge. If your child is ‘addicted’ to sugar, then it makes sense to buy very few sweets and little fizzy pop. If your child tends to obesity, then perhaps you should buy less cake and fewer biscuits. It is hard for a child not to eat what is readily available and tastes good. And if the food is available, it is hard for you, the parent, not to give in when the child begs for an icecream just before tea.
As the parent, you are responsible for what food is available, and when the child is allowed to eat it. If you get him into good eating habits when he is young, if you can make sure that he is eating a balanced diet – even if he gets some of his nutrients from vitamin drops – then life is likely to be easier later.
Do not allow food to become a battle-ground. The child who realises how much he does or does not eat is of high importance to you has the makings of an eating disorder. Try to make sure the child eats regularly, snacks on healthy food, sits at table with you, and has energy. If your child refuses to eat for some time and is losing weight, go for help.
Some children have a food sensitivity. That is, their bodies are sensitive to particular substances. Some small babies are discovered to be intolerant of cows milk and don’t cope well with normal formula – also derived from cows’ milk and therefore containing lactose. They are usually given soya milk and, later, soy products. More complex are those children who have a sensitivity to cow’s milk or wheat. These are the two most common sensitivities in children, and I generally check them out first if a child is brought to me who is very lively and hard to manage. A good clue is if he eats or drinks a lot of the suspect foodstuff. The child who has to have milk or cheese or yoghurt frequently every day may well be somewhat sensitive. Oranges are another food that children are commonly sensitive to. Although it is possible to go and have allergy tests, as a first step it is easier to just cut the possible culprit out of the diet.
This is easier said than done. A surprising number of foods have milk in them, sometimes the parts are labelled whey or lactose; if someone is sensitive to milk products, the tiniest amount will stimulate the sensitivity, so all milk must be removed while you check things out. If your child is milk sensitive, behaviour will change very quickly – certainly within four days – when you remove milk from his diet [and again, more boys than girls are affected]. One seven year old developed an awful headache within twelve hours on each of the three occasions his mum tested out eliminating milk, others just become much calmer; others, still, found out they were suddenly able to concentrate and learn. Similarly with wheat products. Check what foodstuffs contain the potential problem and remove them from the diet. If you find an effect, make an appointment with a dietician; you need to be sure that your child can still have a balanced diet.
Many parents have observed that their children become hyperactive after coca cola or certain sweets. This is easily remedied. Adding fruit juice to sparkling water satisfies many children. Some children are sensitive to colourings or preservatives but artificial colourings are used less than they used to be. Use your common sense as a parent to identify when certain responses occur and check out whether they can be avoided.