The Curse of The Nutritionists Child Part 3… or “How I got my child to eat like a horse AND sleep through the night!”
Here we are, hopefully, the final instalment of our eating journey.
Elodie has always been small for her age – born at just 2.6 kilos (5 pound 13 ounces) I never expected her to be a michelin-roll baby. She was certainly long at birth (both her daddy and I are 6’1”), she just lacked the “chubby factor”, as did I when I was a baby. It was this tiny frame I was conscious of, when considering her needs for food.
As a mother, you’re told a thousand times over that a measure of a child’s health is not how often they ate or how much they ate, but that they were growing, either in length or weight or both. This is true of course (along with their overall vitality) but naturally, it crosses every mothers mind at least once…. are they healthy? Are they growing at the rate they’re supposed to? For Elodie, my focus was ensuring she got enough nutrition and nutrient variation (as well as enough calories) but it was hard when she ate very little and fussed so much over her meals or what she might eat.
At 14 months old she picked up an illness at daycare, while I was staying in Melbourne, and was very sick for about a week. During this time she didn’t eat at ALL. This was normal for us… at the slightest sign of illness, Elodie would always go off her food completely. However her cough persisted for 4 long weeks, creeping up during the night and waking her (and me!) up. This also meant she didn’t eat much at all in those 4 weeks, and so we fed mostly formula. The doctor told me it was a standard bacterial infection, and it would eventually pass. But 4 weeks was just too long so I went to the Naturopath, and she gave me two batches of herbs; one to support her flagging immune system, and another to give her at night as a natural cough suppressant and to sooth her raw throat. The naturopath also suggested that her low immunity was due in part to the huge amounts of calcium she was still consuming at her age – as calcium, zinc, and iron all compete for the same absorption sites in the small intestine (and zinc & iron are huge needs in immune function).
She didn’t eat at ALL. This was normal for us… at the slightest sign of illness, Elodie would always go off her food completely.
She also suggested that I start watering down her night time bottles so that she was getting most of her calories in the day time. Funnily enough I already knew this – but the thought hadn’t occurred to me to link her multiple bottles of formula with her inability to shift her infection. I needed an objective voice to connect the dots. That night, Elodie slept right through, and didn’t cough once. Winner! The interesting part however, was the breakfast that she devoured down the next morning. But you know, in hindsight I was so sleep deprived, and distracted by nutrition assessments, I really just associated her big improvement in appetite with her feeling better on the herbs. I didn’t think much about the diluted bottle I was offering….
At 15 months old her eating was sporadic at best. She might have a few weetbix for breakfast (breakfasts seemed to be her best meal), a reusable squeeze pouch (with green smoothie in it) during daycare, and a few bites of dinner – but she never finished her meals, and grew bored easily. Some days were better than others and I knew that toddlers normally fluctuate in this way. Some days she ate decent amounts, other days like a sparrow. Between long walks with the pram, distraction-feeding, her smoothie pouches and a few different favourite breakfasts, I resigned myself to this way of eating. I mean, she WAS eating now. It wasn’t great, but I could still count on her to eat something every day. The daycare routine was helping too, they were very patient with getting her to eat her smoothie pouch or nibble on fruit. Some days they’d tell me; ‘she ate all her watermelon today and asked for more!’ Small victories.
When she was 16 months old we moved back to Perth again (my uni term was over) and I set about preparing for the renovation & move in of our new house. The upheaval seemed to send her backwards. She picked up a bug at daycare and that was it – the food was the first thing to go. I wanted to cry, I was pulling my hair out. Would she ever grow? Would she ever eat normally? Did I need to go to the feed clinic at PMH? Even after the illness passed, Elodie began to hate her highchair. She would scream at me when she saw me preparing food. She would throw her plate away. She would retch if I shoved food in her mouth when she wasn’t looking. We were still on formula as almost her sole nutrition source some days (along with the odd bowl of porridge, or a sausage, or chopped strawberries).
I had to get help. I knew she COULD eat. I needed someone else – someone objective again – to pull apart what I was doing. To give me RULES to follow, I didn’t care what the rules were going to be. I’d try anything. It killed me to watch the babies in my mothers group demolish anything that was put in front of them while my daughter, now 18 months old, was the devil reincarnate.
I googled child behaviourists and found one not far from me, and late one night after the bolognese was thrown across the table, I sent her an email. She replied the next day and told me she wouldn’t need to see us, she could fix this, and she would just call me.
‘Rightoh’, I thought. ‘I’d like to see you try’.
She told me, in no uncertain terms, that I was to cease ALL formula. Effective immediately. I was also to cease the cod liver / flax oils I was adding, and the children’s multi powder. I was to switch directly to cows milk, and even then it was to be a 50/50 ratio of milk to water.
She asked me why I was still providing formula at her age, and I told her it was Elodies only source of nutrition, because she refused to eat. She asked me if Elodie had bottles during the night, and I said she had 1-2 (of watered down formula – as per the naturopaths earlier suggestion).
She told me that night bottles were to be water ONLY.
She told me, that I was giving her too many calories. That I wasn’t allowing Elodie to get hungry. She told me, quite clearly, we needed to starve her.
‘Rightoh’, I thought. ‘I’d like to see you try’.
Hearing her give me her list of orders, made me feel ill. I felt powerless, and I genuinely worried what Cyclone Elodie would launch into once she wasn’t eating AND was hungry. I wasn’t sure I was entirely ready to go against everything I had done so far in feeding & nourishing Elodie.
She told me though, that if this didn’t work, that we needed to get her into the PMH Feed Unit. I wanted this womans advice to FAIL because it seemed like such a simple solution, that it was silly that it hadn’t occurred to me before. But I also wanted it to WORK, because I was so sick and tired of the uphill battle.
That night after the phone call, I offered Elodie warm dairy milk in her usual bottle before bed (2/3 milk and 1/3 water). That night she woke once and I offered her cows milk again, at the same ratio. The next morning, she shared my porridge. It wasn’t a great deal, but she didn’t throw her usual tantrum. So, was that luck? Hmm.
That day, instead of formula before her midday nap, I sent her to daycare with her cows milk diluted with water. At bedtime, I gave her a 50/50 diluted cows milk bottle. She woke in the night and I decided THIS was the time to go 100% warm water – and in her sleepy state, she took it!
THE NEXT MORNING, we sat down to a breakfast of scrambled eggs, and before I’d even finished setting the table, she was trying to climb into her highchair. IM SORRY WHAT?
The HATED highchair?!
Elodie ate not only an entire bowl of cheesy scrambled eggs, she also ate half of a weetbix. That was more food than she’d eaten in one sitting… EVER.
I burst into tears. I literally blubbered into my muesli, and I pulled out my phone and I FILMED it. I filmed my daughter eating food because… EATING!! I posted it on instagram, I posted it on Facebook, I sent it to her daddy. But mostly, I just let the tears run down my face as I sat there flabbergasted. The most incredible weight came off my shoulders.
And truly, that was 7 weeks ago and we haven’t looked back. There is no more formula. The watery milk is just for routines and comfort (and bonus hydration). Elodie now eats two enormous meals every day (breakfast & dinner), has a light lunch of half a sandwich and yoghurt, and snacks on fruit or crackers throughout the day. I have a completely different child. One who ASKS for food for the first time ever. One who sits down at her little lunch table of her own accord. One who will continue to eat her breakfast even if I walk out of the room. After 5 weeks I weighed Elodie, and she had gained 1 whole kilo (taking her from 9.5 to 10.5) and lifting her out of the lowest percentile. Thats a 10% gain in 5 weeks!
So what came first? THE CHICKEN OR THE EGG. I suppose I’ll never know if her food refusal caused me to supplement with more formula, or if the formula supplementation caused her food refusal. What I learnt though, is that sometimes our instinct to CARE and LOVE our children, and to ensure they have everything they need, clouds our judgement, and our ability to think with clarity. The simple fact alone, that I was already feeding her too much for her to even GET hungry, was completely fogged up by my fixation on how much nutrition and how many calories she was getting. I wasn’t able to step outside of the paradox of being a Mama AND a Nutritionist.
‘So what about the sleep!?’ I can hear you cry.
I was not prepared to enter into THAT battle with Elodie after having made so much progress with her eating. I was happy, she was happy, and I had gotten quite used to waking 1 – 2 times in the night to give her a bottle. But as the weeks wore on, and she was literally having only water at night now, I wondered what was driving her to wake… it certainly wasn’t hunger now, because she wasn’t being fed. Then I had a few consecutive nights of her waking 3-4 times and I decided, after multiple coffees to keep me alive, that this HAD to stop.
I realised that after all this time, Elodie was PROGRAMMED to wake up. Think about this; if YOU woke every night at 11pm and 3am to have a cup of tea, for 6 months, even if you stopped drinking the cuppa, you’d still wake up right?
Back to google, late in the night to see what other Mama’s were trying! I browsed through baby forums under search terms like “my toddler won’t sleep through” and “not sleeping through at 18 months”.
There was one technique that a mother tried that jumped out at me, and I decided we were going to give it a crack. When hubby came home from site, I told him we would try this together, and under no circumstances was Elodie to have a bottle…. we were going to attempt to resettle her without it.
I realised that after all this time, Elodie was PROGRAMMED to wake up
The first night we tag-teamed her wakeups. We tried every technique to soothe her, except a bottle. I rocked her, sang to her, paced around the room, told her stories, and patted her, but I made a point of not leaving her room. When she fell quiet, I would lay her down, and say all the same things I would say at her normal 7pm bedtime, “shh, bedtime, time for sleep, I’ll see you in the morning” etc and then I would walk straight out. She’d cry of course. I’d wait 10 minutes (I just sat on the edge of my bed and read a magazine, I was in for the long haul!) and then go in again. I’d use any technique to calm her down, then when she was calm, I’d lay her down again. Hubby did a similar thing. And we battled through each time until she didn’t protest and just fell asleep.
The next morning we were WRECKS. Elodie had been up 3 times, and each time took an hour for her to fall back asleep.
But we persevered. And the next night wasn’t so bad. She still woke up several times, but resettling was much shorter (about 15 minutes).
By night 3, she was still waking twice, but I could just walk in, lay her straight down again, readjust her blankets, speak softly to her, and walk out. When I walked back into our bedroom, I shook hubby awake and hissed, ‘You’ll never just guess how easy that was!!!’
On the 4th night – she slept 10 hours straight. UNBELIEVABLE. I felt mildly human again!
We were able to successfully readjust her out of needing a bottle for sleep. Elodie now sleeps through every night as a rule, usually 7pm until 6.30am. If she does wake, I literally lay her back down awake, reassure her, and walk out.
Between the food and sleep, Elodie is a completely different child. We’ve now also brought her pre-nap and night-time bottles forward, to about 30 minutes before I intend on putting her down, so that they’re no longer linked to sleep (but she still has a full tummy feeling). Sometimes now, and it feels crazy to say this, she asks to go to bed before I’ve even offered the bottle!
There are other bonuses too; if someone does a burnout on our street, or the possums fight on the roof and Elodie wakes up, it takes 2 minutes to send her back to sleep and I don’t even have to pick her up out of the cot. Sometimes… I even hear her wake, cry, chatter to herself (or her teddies) and then silence again as she goes back down on her own.
I do regret not taking away the dead-of-the-night bottles sooner (just think of all that sleep I could have had! haha) but I also think I just wasn’t emotionally ready for the battle. I also don’t think I could have managed it without switching to just water first. Taking away the dead-of-night eating took away the purpose of her waking, I just had to change the HABIT.
All I can say is this; keep trying mama. This is just my own experience, but often, it gets worse before it gets better. Its ok to ask for help – yes use the internet – take what you need, leave what doesn’t feel right. And if you tried something and it didn’t work, you’re not failing – just remember that you have a different kid! Give your munchkin a break, give yourself a break, and then try something else.
This shit is hard.