My 14-month-old did not eat willingly for close to six weeks. I’m still completely baffled that he didn’t wither away, but rather seemed fine and unbothered throughout the whole ordeal. I was a wreck. What initially seemed like a case of picky eating became an aversion to all food. He had always been an adventurous diner who would try anything and pack food into his little cheeks like a chipmunk. I had built up a solid menu of healthy, quick foods that I could rotate, and we could take him to any restaurant and he would eat off of whatever plate we ordered. Mealtime was fun and easy! Then seemingly overnight, he didn’t want to eat anymore. He stared disdainfully at his food, no matter what I gave him, shredding it into little pieces, poking his finger through the middle like a ring, or chucking it over the edge of his high chair. If I snuck bites into his mouth, he would make a terrible face like I had fed him rat poison and use his fingers to dig the food back out again. It got to the point where, within seconds of putting him in his chair, he would frantically begin signing “All done! All done! Out! Down!” and trying to heave himself out if we didn’t immediately respond. I would tell him, “You can’t be done, you didn’t eat anything! I know you’re hungry, you haven’t eaten all day!” I was beyond frustrated and completely mystified as to how he was surviving off of milk and the occasional cheese and berries.
Around the second week of his food strike, I reached out to my mommy pals for help, and my friend gave me advice that made all the difference for me (that, ironically, she had read in an old parenting book from the 70s). In summation, it stated that our job as parents is to prepare and serve healthy food to them – but it’s their job to eat it. We can’t make them eat. Children will not starve themselves, and just like they go through growth spurts and eat ravenously, they also go through phases of not needing as much nutrition (a concept that our pediatrician echoed and confirmed).
So as frustrating and sometimes worrying as it might have been, I let my son guide me in what he needed. I continued to offer him a full spread at every meal, trying to incorporate as many textures, flavors and colors as I could, letting him pick out what he wanted. I’d sit him in his high chair and when he signed that he was done, I respected his tiny wishes and let him be excused. Oftentimes he would not eat anything, but I’d grit my teeth and put the food back in the fridge (during this time I made sure to serve meals that could easily be refrigerated and reheated so as to not waste food and not further aggravate myself by having to throw a meal away). I made sure he got plenty to drink and some days it seemed like that was all he ingested, though his energy level never waned and his weight stayed solid. I would make a big deal about eating in front of him and offer him bites of what I was munching on. I packed little finger foods into snack cups and – against all my instincts on manner training – let him wander around the house with it, eating random cheerios and graham cracker bits when he felt like it. I made nutrition-rich smoothies for myself that he would occasionally want to taste and sip on. Was it a bit of a pain? Sure, but it was more my worrying about it than it was extra work.
People told me to not put so much effort and thought into it, that I was training him to be selective and picky in his eating, but something in my gut told me that it was just a phase. I also viewed picky eating as still having an appetite but only wanting to eat certain foods, and this was an all-out food boycott.
Six weeks of this, and then as quickly as he started rejecting food, he was suddenly hungry again. I was ecstatic. I literally held my breath as he sat and finally ate most of his meals and opened his little mouth like a bird for more noodles or yogurt. He also emerged from his food hiatus with four shiny new molars, which could very well have been responsible for his not wanting to eat. Teething is a whole other story (see my blog on teething remedies for ideas), but some kids have a much harder time with it than others and it can make their entire jaw hurt to do even a simple movement like chewing since the nerve pathways from their teeth go all through their jaw up into their cheeks and ears.
So what did I learn from all of this? Mainly – to chill out. If your child is suddenly not wanting to eat, it could be a number of things including teething, an illness, or that they simply aren’t needing as much food. Keep an eye on their weight and as long as it doesn’t look like they’re becoming malnourished (weigh yourself and then weigh yourself holding your child) then you might just have to wait it out. Make food look fun and enticing, consider letting them “snack” instead of sitting for a full meal, whoop and holler and clap when they do eat, and if they are teething, give them very soft, cool foods that don’t require much chewing like yogurt or smoothies (if you’ve ever had your wisdom teeth pulled, remember how much it hurt to move your jaw afterwards and imagine that your child’s pain level is similar to that). Keep an eye on their bowels to make sure they are still having normal diapers, and definitely contact your pediatrician if anything seems overly concerning.
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