When Michael was a baby, I was, I now know, an incredibly annoying and sanctimonious mum. I breastfed him until 15 months. I gave him fruit, and vegetables, and meat and fish, and he ate everything. He could be picky about some things and his tastes seemed to veer towards the more expensive foods (trout and lamb shanks being his favourite) but I seriously thought I had the whole eating thing down.
I looked at other kids that only ate white bread or chicken nuggets, and shook my head. I thought, ‘well, if I gave Michael rubbish like that he’d probably like it too, but I only give him lamb shank stew with huge amounts of vegetables and that’s all he knows’. Twelve months later all he was eating and drinking was bread and soy milk. How the mighty have fallen!
If we put a food near him, he screamed. He didn’t want even the things he loved two weeks ago. He became constipated and had tummy aches every day. We got pretty desperate and considered rubbing food on the windows and couches – Michael loved licking them and either he would stop licking them or he would ingest food. Win Win. Then we thought harder and worked out a method to get him to try anything
Being a lawyer, I have to add a disclaimer here – it’s a pretty tough method. It takes a really long time, involves a lot of baby steps and it’s not for the faint hearted! However if your toddler eats nothing but white bread all day and is getting so constipated she poos once a week, this method is for you. How hard it will be depends on where your kid sits on the
spoilt little brat strong-willed-future-entrepreneur scale, but mine is firmly at the Steve Jobs end and it still worked.
The good news is that Michael has gone from eating bread and milk, to trying ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING. He will eat anything I put in front of him, as long as it’s in small pieces. And these days his chewing has improved so much it doesn’t even have to be that small (half a blue berry size is ok). Today he loves his food. There are no dinner time battles – he runs over to that chair and makes himself comfortable. I introduce new foods all the time (yesterday we tried peas, and after some initial faces he was completely comfortable with them). His tummy issues are gone. Actually they are possibly too gone, since he also pooed at least three times today and I just can’t clean up any more poo!
Step 1: Tolerating the Food’s Presence Near Him
We started right at the beginning. Michael screamed if we even came near him with non-approved food at this stage so we sat him down in the high chair, and rewarded him for EVERYTHING. We chose one food to start with. I decided on meat because little kids need two good sources of iron every day to grow and learn and because he was already having a variety of grains and seeds in his toast.
So at the start we would reward him for sitting next to a piece of meat. I would take a beef skewer, take one of the cubes off, and just put it somewhere near him where he could see it. Then I would take it away and give him one of the foods he actually did like. Repeat. I did this about five times per day and then I would stop.
The key thing here is I never ever gave up. I started light – something that only made him slightly uncomfortable. I would have started with keeping the food in the next room if that’s what it took. And worked from there. And I always gave him a prize. But I never ever ever gave him ‘the prize’ unless he actually did what I asked. Ever. Whingeing or throwing a tantrum was never rewarded. If it was one of those evenings when my patience was gone, I was tired and I knew I would give in, I didn’t even try. I just sat him down nicely, gave him the evening off and let him eat whatever he wanted.
It didn’t take long for him to figure out that the little meat cube wouldn’t actually jump up onto him and force-feed him. So he relaxed and its mere presence didn’t offend him quite so much.
This step took a few days as I really wanted to make sure he was perfectly comfortable before I moved on to
Step 2: Touching the Food with his Lips
This was a pretty tough step. I would cut off a little bit of meat and bring it up to his lips. He didn’t have to lick it or swallow it, just touch it. Please note little piece is really little. It’s half a finger nail size.
I really had to make it clear to him that he was not going to get his favourite food, that he really wanted, unless he let me touch that little piece of meat to his lips. And he did not want to do it at all. The first time, I’m afraid, I practically had to get him in a head-lock.
I am happy to say though that after one or two bad attempts (which I still rewarded by the way, praised him, gave him lots of nice things) he realized that, once again, no one is making him eat anything. After about a week of this he was completely comfortable touching his lips to the meat and we were ready to move on to…
Step 3: Licking the Food
This step didn’t take too long with Michael, it wasn’t that different to step 2 for him. I had to be quite firm to make sure he understood I’m not accepting ‘touching lips to food’ anymore, but there was no whingeing and he was perfectly comfortable with it. This step took only a couple of days.
Step 4: Holding Food in his Mouth and Spitting it Out
Surprisingly, this step also didn’t take too long. Once you get on a roll with these things they just seem to happen naturally and he seemed pretty happy to put something in his mouth and spit it out again. But I must emphasise again how small the pieces were. They were pretty much as small as it is possible to cut something. I had to pick up lots of little pieces of beef off his t-shirt and the floor. That’s ok, I’ve long ago accepted that my role in life is now ‘chief picker upper of things’. We stayed on this for about a week as it was very hard to transition to step 5. It was important for him to know that he did not have to eat the food at this stage, that all he had to do was put it in his mouth for a little bit and then he could always spit it out.
Step 5: Swallowing
This was quite a big hurdle for us, because we had to figure out how to trick Michael and he is much, much smarter than us.
In the end my husband came up with a trick. He would cut up the pieces of meat so small, that just by licking them Michael was swallowing. How we managed to cut them that small I will never know but motivation is a great thing. The pieces were so small you needed a special magnifying glass to see them, and Michael still made a face every time he swallowed one. He would gag when he did it, even though of course they were too small for him to choke. We didn’t do it a lot at a time – I only ever did five trials at a time, maybe a couple of times a day. And lots of praise and rewards for this step – it may seem like a tiny thing for us but it was a big step for him.
Step 6: Making the Pieces Bigger
We had a lot of back-and-forward movement on this step. We would make the pieces slightly bigger, Michael would eat them, but if we made them too much bigger than the previous time he would stop eating anything all together and we would be back at step 4.
Cue lots of crying and screaming ‘WHY, WHY?’ to the heavens.
In our heads of course.
Once we figured out we had to increase the size really gradually we made some progress.
Patience is really important here. It may take absolutely months to get to this stage. It’s all about baby steps. The thing I noticed is how slow the beginning was and how quickly he suddenly just ‘got it’ and sped up at around this level and we could move on to normal toddler-size pieces. This is when he started to actually enjoy the food and the gagging gradually decreased (it’s another reason why we only increased the size very gradually). He’s a pretty good chewer now although we do have to keep cutting his food up into fairly small pieces.
Step 7: Introducing Other Foods
At this stage I started using a similar method to introduce a variety of foods to Michael. I tried berries, to help with his digestive issues. I tried cucumbers, and apples, bananas, anything that was on hand and easy to cut up into very very small pieces. But I only ever introduce one new food per day at most, usually one every few days. With each new food, I would give him a reward for every bite. For foods that he has been eating for a while, I would reward him for two, three, or even ten bites until eventually I didn’t reward that food at all. If he started enjoying it enough I could use that food as a reward for something else!
And the miraculous thing is that this step was one of the fastest! Michael really started to enjoy eating, especially the foods we started with like blueberries and meat. He loves a good steak. He definitely has some foods that he prefers to others (who doesn’t?) and it’s mostly finger food at the moment.
I am pretty happy with where Michael is at the moment. I am working on his chewing abilities, and increasing the size of the pieces I give him. I am more and more making sure that he is feeding himself – working on his pincer grip especially. In the future we will need to introduce more ‘mixed meals’ like spaghetti, and of course the use of cutlery for these meals, but at the moment I’m pretty happy to let him figure out what he likes and what he likes less. My experience has certainly shown me that through sheer perseverance you can get anywhere, and that there is no reason why a fussy toddler should remain that way. If it worked for Michael it can work for anyone!
You can thank me later.