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Sunday, March 4, 2012

A broken heart - "momming" the finicky eater

I debated for a long time about whether to post this because it is not a cheerful post. Like many who blog, most of my posts are about the awesomeness of family life but there are times when life is not so good to us.  In deciding to post this, I realized that if someone else had posted this somewhere, it might have saved my broken heart.  Therefore, I am posting this not to solicit well intended sympathy but rather to help others learn from my mistakes.

The birth of my son, my first born, was an event I had waited for my entire life.  I had spent years working with children and finally I would have my own.  Despite my years of schooling and working with children, I was blinded to the early signs of my son's sensory issues.  I was assured that severe acid reflux was common in babies and something he would out grow; and he did.  Although we questioned why he held his ears when driving by traffic, we never thought his early rejection of food was anything other than normal adjustment.  When he began choking on solids as a toddler, we were assured that it too would pass; and it did.  Then when he refused to eat his vegetables, we were assured it was normal preschool behavior.

During my son's early years, I worked full time and he was mainly cared for by a nanny during the day. I always planned his meals and snacks, making sure each food group was covered.  In some ways, it was the only thing I truly had control over while away at work.  When his sister was born, she too suffered from reflux, normalizing his history in our eyes.  At this time, I began to work part-time to meet her needs.  As she grew, we had a taste of what normal eating was for a baby. She enjoyed foods and ate adventurously. Despite this, we still believed our son just going through the age two to five stage of picky eaters.

After moving to Lexington and working full-time again, we decided to have our third child.  I was determined not to miss anymore of my children's daily lives and quit work after the birth of our little Beaner.  I decided to try homeschooling.  Midway through this adventure, our little Beaner became a very high need baby, much like her siblings.  I no longer felt I could educate my children at the level they required to excel and made the difficult choice of sending them both to public school.

As for as eating, I felt like there were improvements during our homeschooling days.  We did an in depth study of nutrition.  I finally had time to cook and became the "sneaky chef".  My son was gaining weight and eating muffins with everything from spinach to cauliflower in them.   His pickiness continued but I was assured by his doctor that as long as he took his vitamins and ate what I baked for him, he was fine.

In the fall of 2011, our son began kindergarten, along with his sister.  It was a tough decision to make him repeat this grade.  I felt like I had failed him as an educator.  He was socially immature and we knew he needed the extra guidance kindergarten would provide.  After some initial  resistance, our son started to excel academically.  His giftedness as an artist really developed and he suddenly just "clicked" with reading.  The down side was that he was also suddenly catching every virus available.  The colds and strep throat incidents were relentless.  Around Thanksgiving time, we began to notice even more resistance in his feeding.  I still had my magical muffins to give him, along with some good old fashioned peanut butter, so we really didn't worry.  Everyone assured us he would out grow this so we just waited for this to happen.

In January 2012, something drastically changed.  I don't know if it was the disruption from traveling during the holidays or the distraction of a priveleged Christmas, but it seemed like there was very little we could find to feed him.  He continued to contract viruses and with each one, he refused to eat.  Then suddenly my muffins were no longer palatable. He begged for Entemann's Little Bites and other processed foods.

Let me back up a little to say that we had come a long way in educating ourselves on how to feed our children.  We had eliminated high fructose corn syrup, processed goods, additives and food coloring.  We bought mostly organic or natural products.  Processed foods were only given as a "treat" when traveling or by someone other than us.

By the time February rolled around, we noticed some weight loss in our son.  Every time he became ill, he would eat less and less.  Then his snack and lunch bags started to come home full.  I talked with him and his teacher about eating while at school but he always had an excuse.  Sure, he would nibble a cracker or drink an applesauce pouch but that would be it for the entire day.  We decided enough was enough and contacted an agency for food aversion therapy.  We had long before requested the assistance from his school as he was already in speech therapy.  We were denied stating that it did not impact him academically.  I don't know about you but I surely couldn't focus on an empty stomach!  Anyway, we were put on a six week waiting list for therapy!

Last week was a turning point in our lives.  I say this for several reasons.  First, me and my husband never really agreed on the severity of our son's eating problems.  My husband was also a selective eater growing up.  His parents frequently reminded me that they would make him milk shakes and PB&J sandwiches because it was all he ate.  Second, therapy is not cheap and we had sacrificed a large income for me to stay home.  Therapy is hard for some people to see value in especially if they have never had it themselves.  We obviously would have given our son our last dime to make him healthy but we had always been assured that he indeed was healthy.  Therefore, there was no urgency so we figured we would wait until I decided to work again if it didn't improve by then.  Third, I finally saw the whole picture of my son's life and the events that led to where he is today.  That really helped me understand why he struggled with foods so much.  This is what happened last week:

On Friday, our son came home from school complaining of a headache and sore throat.  He had a fever and reported that he couldn't eat all day.   By Saturday, he was incapacitated and miserable. He refused pain relievers (since he can't tolerate the taste) and although probably better for it, that made it impossible to relieve his discomfort.  Throughout the weekend, he deteriorated more and more prompting us to take him to the doctor Monday (one week ago from now). I talked him into taking a bath (it had been 5 days) but that required that I lift him in and out of the tub as he was unable to walk.  I don't normally see him completely naked and when I did, my heart just sank.  He was all skin and bones.  In a matter of weeks he had significantly dropped several pounds. I was scared for his life at this point and couldn't get to the doctor quick enough.

Once at the doctor, he was put through the torture of a strep test (torture for someone with a strong gag reflex),only to find out it was a virus.  I told the doctor I was fearful that he was becoming malnourished so the  doctor assessed his body mass index (BMI).  When he showed me the graph on his computer of a straight line down well under any acceptable range, my heart just broke.  After hearing over and over "he won't starve", my little boy was doing just that.  Our doctor directed him to drink two boost per day and return in one month for a recheck.

As soon as I got home, I called the therapy place and explained his current status.  They were kind enough to accept him for an evaluation the next day.  His fever broke that night and the next day his energy level started to increase.  We talked about the importance of drinking his boost while we try to figure out why he can't eat like everyone else.  In an effort to quickly add weight to his body, we have caved into any requests for "junky" type food.  Suddenly our house is filled with Cheetos, Fruit Loops, and Rice Krispy treats and the kids are in heaven.  It's hard to tell our girls they can't have these treats all the time but their brother can eat as much as he wants.

After a week of drinking his boost and eating lots of Fruit Loops, it appears that he is gaining some weight back.  He surprised me today by trying a cashew (this earns him a check mark toward a toy).  Our priority is getting food into him to gain weight and then trying to retrain his eating into healthier foods.  I was happy when he agreed to try my muffins again and then ate three of them!  I made them extra fatty with thick coconut milk.  The road for our son is going to be long but he is such a wonderful boy and we know he will persevere through this challenge and hopefully learn to find joy in eating healthy foods.

I recently read an article in the March addition of Parents magazine about the fear of new foods (neophobia). In the article, they sited that one of the first steps to take is to rethink conventional wisdom.  These are thoughts we have continually heard from doctors, parents, and family through the years.  They are:

1)  "He'll grow out of it"  - 25% of kids do not!
2)  "He's just being difficult"  -kids really aim to please and many of the reasons for selective eating are innate
3)  "He'll eat when he's hungry"  - our son really proved this to be wrong

So I write this to you as I know there are mothers out there reading this and struggling with the guilt we feel when we can't get our kids to eat.  I also know that my close family and friends read this and may wonder why we are suddenly eating different.  Or perhaps you've noticed how skinny our little boy suddenly looks. I write this so each of you will understand what our son is going through.  One thing I have learned through my years of work as a psychologist is that the more people and resources a family has, the better their chance is for success.  It does no one any good to keep your problems a secret.  We all have them and the blogging world is a great place to learn how to conquer them.

Meal time should not be a battle time and I refuse to have battles at our dinner table.  It is a time for our family to be together and enjoy each other's company.  Over time and through the help of professionals, we are confident that our son will share this joy with us.  For now, I'm just so glad to see this wonderful boy active and smiling again!

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