He’ll Eat When He’s Hungry

Have you ever met one of those irritating people that are effortlessly slim, and to whom food is simply fuel for their body? That was Sawyer. And since having him, it’s made me realise that it’s quite a strange thing, isn’t it, to feel jealous of somebody for lacking enjoyment of something. Yet that’s what I’d always done. I’ll never be ‘naturally slim’ because, frankly, I bloody love eating and drinking, yet I’ve always been fascinated by those people who can disassociate food and pleasure, and eat only for the purpose it was intended. Energy. Survival. Instinct.

Sawyer was between 5 and 6 months old when we weaned him on to solids, and we could easily have waited longer, since he wasn’t interested in food at all. I would listen to other mums talk about how their baby was so happy to be getting their first taste of solid food, and all I could think was – get a life, this whole process sucks, and your baby is spitting half their food out just like all the others what the hell am I doing wrong?? By the time most parents I knew were offering their baby the same dinner as the rest of the family, we were still battling with the fact Sawyer would only eat fruit puree. He just did not want to eat.

Any parent who hasn’t come up against food battles with their child at some point is either incredibly lucky, or they’re lying. I took some comfort in that as I tortured myself on toddler meal websites, books and articles. And judging from the amount of literature dedicated to weaning children, it certainly isn’t a problem isolated to parents of children on the autistic spectrum (although my second child was a breeze). However, what I realise now is that being a fussy eater and having sensory issues surrounding food are two very different things, and none of the websites and articles took that in to consideration. I didn’t know then what I know now, and so when people referred to Sawyer as a ‘fussy eater’ I nodded and accepted without question that he was hard work with food, and that it was almost certainly my fault. Perhaps I hadn’t started him on the right foods to begin with. Perhaps I should have gone down the Baby Led Weaning route. Perhaps I should never have let him try shop bought baby foods. The constant worry that Sawyer wasn’t getting enough nutrition was beginning to weigh heavy on my mind and as I tried out new ideas one by one, I felt like a little bit more of a failure every time he refused to eat.

In 2011 my husband suffered a redundancy at work and for a short time he became the primary caregiver at home, whilst I increased my hours temporarily to counteract the financial loss. I remember distinctly one day walking in from work at around dinnertime, and offering to feed Sawyer. Although he was now over 12 months old, he could not control a fork/spoon, and so unless he was eating something he could easily negotiate with his hands, we needed to sit with him and help. I’ve made that sound like a lovely calm interaction haven’t I? Yeah, it wasn’t. In order to get any dinner inside him, we had to move the highchair (yep) in to the living room and turn the television on so that he wasn’t focussed on the food, or the person trying to feed him. What happened next was basically an attempt at shovelling food in to his mouth and hoping he would chew and swallow without realising what was going on. On this particular day, after a busy afternoon at work, Sawyer not only spat the pasta back out, but managed to smack the entire bowl out of my hand, all over me and the carpet. I shouted. He cried. I cried. Welcome home, Mummy!

I have a fairly substantial list of irritating advice I have been given in the past 6 years or more. As soon as you look pregnant you suddenly become public property and find often that everyone you meet feels qualified as an expert. Up at the top of my irritating advice list is ‘he will eat when he is hungry’. Pardon the cliché, but if I had a pound for every time someone had used that phrase on me, I would almost certainly be elbow deep in pina colada, and watching dolphins swim from the deck of my yacht. I had never been a fan of our health visiting team, but after they offered this as helpful advice at a routine check one day, I knew the relationship was unsalvageable. He wouldn’t eat when he was hungry. He wouldn’t eat at all! Looking back, there were several opportunities for health professionals to have realised the issues I was raising were all part of the same larger problem. The food issues Sawyer had, I understand now, stemmed directly from sensory issues beyond our control. Most of you are reading this blog post having already unfolded Sawyer’s story, so by now you are probably thinking the same as I am – of course he had issues with food! The child had sensory issues! I understand that eating is one of humankind’s most basic instincts and that with this in mind it is true that children, on the whole, will agree to eat something when they get hungry enough. But what the phrase doesn’t allow for is children who can’t recognise when they actually feel hungry. Can you imagine what the feeling of hunger must be like if you aren’t aware that what you are feeling… is hunger? And then can you imagine trying to eat something with a texture that makes you feel sick? And then someone is telling you that you HAVE to try it. I could cry just thinking about it.

Sawyer is now 6 years old, and we still have fairly substantial issues surrounding food. Anything sloppy is still, for the most part, off the menu and it is difficult to convince him to try new things. When he does find something he likes, which is usually something bread related, he has a tendency to stuff his mouth completely full of food, to the extent that he can barely chew. This is a common issue in children with ASD and sensory issues, but doesn’t come without the added stress that he might choke. It takes constant gentle reminders to encourage Sawyer to take small bites and chew them. Recently Sawyer’s diet has become more varied, and it isn’t an accident. Each day I give Sawyer plenty of warning when his dinner will be ready, and tell him in advance what it will be so that he knows what to expect. Like most of our lives, routine is key, and on top of that we make it up as we go along. Dinner time is a problem for lots of parents, and sensory issues only heighten the burden.

As parents, we only want the best for our children. These days I take a much more relaxed view to what my children eat than I did when Sawyer was a baby. Of course I want my children to eat a balanced diet, and I attempt this every day, but some days it all goes wrong and I no longer beat myself up about it. Sawyer is happy. His sister is happy. They’re happy children. And actually the feeling of guilt and pressure did go away overnight, after I received the best piece of parenting advice I’ve ever had. Anyone who knows me will know that I don’t generally like to take advice. I’m pretty pig-headed independent like that and generally I prefer to do my research and draw my own conclusions.

When Sawyer was about 18months old, he would only eat toast. Anything else was a complete no-go zone and it had me stressed beyond belief, for reasons I don’t understand now I look back. Everything seemed so complicated and integral, and I felt like a complete failure because no matter what I prepared and how many airplane spoon actions I made, all my son would eat was toast.

And then one day my Mum calmly gave me the best piece of advice I have ever received:

‘Well, just give him toast then’.

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