Sunday, October 26, 2014

What is Normal?

I had one of those "moments of truth" this week. I was feeding my son, my baby, who in reality is
now officially a one year old, but in my mind, he is still a baby. I had put him in the high chair and he was making it quite clear that he was hungry and he wanted me to feed him RIGHT. THEN. I went to put food on his tray and he proceeded to scream and throw it on the floor. I was shocked. He was hungry, right?
You would think after having three children, I would know better what to expect when it comes to the table mannerisms of kids. But I'm telling you, it surprises me every time to witness my offspring assert their opinions about food. I know I am not alone. I think one of the biggest reasons that feeding our kids becomes such a challenge is that we lack a proper understanding of the normal nutritional stages that are a part of a child's healthy development.
With my older two girls, I felt like super mom. I breastfed them exclusively until 6 months of age and then made their baby food from scratch. I seasoned their purees with cumin, chili powder, cayenne pepper and curry, in hopes of raising young food lovers with an impressive food repertoire and tolerance for spice. (If reading this makes you gag and you are suddenly overcome with a strange desire to hire a hit man to take me out in the night, I get it. But please do read on). And for the first little while, my plan worked. My girls ate wonderfully and I was frequently complimented on my "amazing eaters" whilst I secretly patted myself on the back for my incredible parenting skills and for mastering this hard art of feeding.
And then things changed. Ha. Suddenly my eldest began refusing vegetables and whined constantly that things were "too spicy." I knew I wasn't supposed to force her to eat but that rule didn't apply to vegetables, right? I mean, what kid eats vegetables voluntarily? If she didn't eat some sort of green, certainly she keel over and die.
Friends, if you have ever been in a similar boat, I know it is so unbelievably frustrating when your kids suddenly shift in their eating habits. But let me assure you, the Division of Responsibility that I blogged about here truly does provide a better approach to feeding that does not involve force. But before we even implement that, I think it is so important that we have a good understanding of some of the key development phases that kids go through when it comes to nutrition and eating.
The "Almost-Toddler" (8-12 month old): a child may suddenly refuse to eat unless allowed to do it his or herself.
This behavior can easily be mistaken as food rejection when in actuality, it is a bid for autonomy. This is partially what I think was going on with my son the other day with he started freaking out over breakfast. Don't give up when your baby pushes away a food once or twice. It can take numerous, numerous, NUMEROUS introductions for a child to realize they like a food and at this age in particular, they might just want you to give them some space and let them do it themselves. It will be messy (guaranteed!) but give them a spoon and let them have at it. Or cut food into tiny pieces and let them pick and choose what they want to eat and in what order.
The "Toddler Proper" (15-18 month old): the "eating honeymoon" ends, child grows skeptical and tests limits.
This is the phase my eldest was in when she suddenly developed an opinion about anything and everything green and also about spice. It is important to remember that the skepticism and limit-testing behaviors ARE VERY NORMAL. Continue offering foods in accordance with the Division of Responsibility and learn to expect (and be okay with!) plenty of food rejection and therefore food waste. Carry on friends, carry on!!
The 2+ Year Old: child leaves the "critical nutrition" period and growth slows significantly (goal at this age is consistent growth, not appetite).
It is typically at this age when our red flags raise and we go on high alert. Your child, who used to have an appetite comparable to a college-aged football player, now eats three crumbs over the course of an entire day and you aren't even sure if their intake would be enough to sustain a fly. This drastic change in appetite is alarming and it can be very tempting to leave food out to encourage grazing in hopes of increasing overall intake. At this age, it is important to remember that SLOWED GROWTH IS NORMAL and even desirable in order for our kids to follow their growth curves. Where once we expected rapid weight gain and therefore a very steep upward growth curve during the baby and toddler years, now growth should taper off to a more slow and gradual climb.
Preschool and School-Aged Child: becomes more cooperative (want to please), remembers what you say, learns through experience and not head, seems independent but continues to need structure and support of family meals and scheduled snacks.
In some ways, this age is glorious. A child who at one point had a very limited food repertoire might start expanding their horizons and trying new things. (Yippee!!) But it also becomes possible to shame ("Look at your brother eating his vegetables so nicely"), motivate, cheerlead or coerce a child into eating how much YOU want them to rather than how much THEY want to. Enjoy this phase but also proceed with caution and be sure to hold up your end of the deal in the Division of Responsibility.
If nothing else, I hope you can cling to these tidbits on child growth and development and realize these challenging phases you are going through are NORMAL. My hope is that a better understanding of the inner workings and goings on inside these tiny humans results in greater grace and patience for their seemingly quirky eating behaviors. Now go forth better equipped and feed! :)

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