When Zip was 2, he developed a fear of eating.
You might be thinking one of two things. One: How many issues does this woman’s kids have? Tics, stuttering, chewing clothes….what’s next? Well, I’m sure something is next. Every kid has bumps in the road at some point. I hope sharing our bumps will help other parents who might experience similar ones. Question Two: Why would a 2-year-old be afraid to eat?!
|Photo by miss pupik via Creative Commons|
To be 100% accurate, Zip wasn’t actually afraid of eating. He was afraid of throwing up. And since he associated eating with throwing up, he didn’t want to eat. I didn’t understand what was going on at first, but in hindsight I was able to piece together how this happened.
First, he had a bad cold and was coughing so much he threw up all over the lunch table at day care. That was actually the first time he had ever thrown up, and it was probably upsetting for him. A few weeks later, while we were driving home from visiting my sister in D.C., he was eating a snack in the car. I think he gagged on a piece of food and it must have triggered the memory of throwing up. He didn’t want to eat anymore and even when we stopped and I bought him a convenience-store doughnut (a rare treat), he refused it. Weird! I thought. He cried off and on the rest of the drive home, but at the time I thought he was just being two. He continued to refuse to eat or drink anything, so then I thought maybe he wasn’t feeling well. The next afternoon I started to worry about him getting dehydrated, so I brought him to our pediatrician who said he was fine and I just need to make him drink.
Making a 2-year-old do anything isn’t easy. And I really wasn’t comfortable with the idea of force-feeding my child. At some point, while I held him on my lap at the kitchen table urging him to take a sip of water or a lick of popsicle, I realized he wasn’t sick – he was afraid. I recently did a web search for “toddler afraid to eat” and found a lot of people talking about this issue on-line. Toddlers and preschoolers are really prone to developing new fears, and choking or vomiting can trigger a fear of eating in little ones. It isn’t common, but it isn’t unusual either.
What does a parent do at this point? Okay, disclaimer time: I am not an expert in feeding issues and the suggestions below should not be construed as medical advice. If you are worried about your child’s eating (or lack of eating), please talk to your pediatrician.
Reading on-line, the advice that repeatedly came up was:
- Stay calm. Kids feed off of our emotions and, as a parent, you don’t want to fuel your child’s anxiety with your own.
- Don’t make a big deal about it. Sometimes calling a lot of attention to an issue makes it worse.
- Offer liquids and soft foods at first.
- Offer matter-of-fact reassurance. “It was really scary to choke/throw-up. You know what? I’m right here to make sure you stay safe. Let’s do this together.”
- Avoid referring to certain foods as “safe,” which may reinforce the child’s perception that some foods are dangerous to eat.
- In some cases these things don’t work and a child’s refusal to eat can become a health concern. If the issue continues, talk to your pediatrician to rule out medical issues and perhaps get a referral for Early Intervention or a feeding specialist. Definitely watch for signs of dehydration and weight loss.
|Photo by Alan Levine
via Creative Commons
I did eventually convince Zip to drink some water that afternoon. For a while I let him ditch his high chair during mealtime and sit on my lap, where he felt safe. We found foods he was willing to eat – basically foods that didn’t have to be chewed. So he ate a lot of applesauce and yogurt for a few of days. Then we moved on to soft foods like cereal bars and canned peaches and, eventually, he was back to eating normally again. We just kept adding new foods every few days, making sure they were only a little bit more challenging or “scary” than what he already eating. In psych-speak, we walked him through a process of gradual desensitization and as we did he saw that his fear (“If I eat, I’ll choke/throw up”) wasn’t accurate. If I remember right, it took only a week or two to get him back on track.
The only wrench in all of this is that right as it was happening he transitioned a new daycare that did not allow packed lunches. We couldn’t pack his “comfort foods” to eat at school and for a while he refused to eat lunch at daycare. He was starving by the time we picked him up! We kept bananas in the car so our hungry little boy could eat something on the drive home. We talked about how he would feel better if he ate lunch, but we didn’t push the issue. Eventually he started eating lunch at daycare and those “cafeteria-style” lunches ended up being a great introduction to some new foods. The only reminder of his eating-phobia was his refusal to touch any vegetable because, as he told us, “I’m not big enough yet. They’ll make me throw up.”
But here we are, 4 years later, and the kid is eating his vegetables (well, some of his vegetables), so I think we’re in the clear.
Have you experienced this with your child? I’d love to hear how other families have handled it and what helped or didn’t help. Scroll on down to the comments and share your story!
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