When I was a young child, I refused to drink milk. I couldn’t. I would dutifully raise the glass to my mouth when prompted, but the smell, the taste, the texture, it all made me begin to gag. My parents were at their wits end with me. They bribed and threatened and begged and pleaded. “Don’t you want to grow up to be big and strong?” my dad would ask. I would shrug. If drinking milk is what it would take, I thought, I wasn’t really all in. They were desperate for me to consume the appropriate amount of nutrition because I was very small for my age and I wasn’t growing. I went a couple of years without growing, in fact. And each night I would arrive at the dinner table to see a glass of milk set out at my place and my heart would sink. “I can’t drink it,” I would think, panic building inside, “I can’t do it.” There were times when I would try to get it over with in a hurry and I would choke it down, only to cough it back up. Sometimes I cried.
When I was eleven, I was tested for lactose intolerance. I didn’t exhibit the classic symptoms, but my mom pushed my doctor to give us the referral for the testing anyway, “Just in case.” The technician at the hospital later told my parents that she thought the machine was broken. She had never seen a positive result happen so quickly. Yes, my name is Jenn and I’m severely lactose intolerant. I don’t drink milk. In fact, to this day the sight of it can sometimes make me nauseous. This is due to psychology, not physiology. I’m scarred, emotionally, from years of forced milk-drinking. (Do I lord this over my parents to this day? Maybe sometimes.)
Milk wasn’t the only nourishment I boycotted as a child. I was also anti-meat for just about as long as I can remember. I have distinct memories of summer cook-outs with my grandpa. He would arrive proudly bearing beef steaks and I would cringe, knowing that someone in my family would encourage me to just try, “a few bites.” I’ve tried a few bites of steak in my life, which is how I know I don’t like it. I also don’t like chicken. I’ve been a vegetarian for many years, but when I was a child I once wrote and illustrated a book, dedicated to my parents, called The Chicken Strike. It was about how I would no longer eat chicken. My parents went along with that one pretty easily, since who can really complain about a child who loves to eat their vegetables (and writes a book about it)?
Most people have some experience of being coerced or borderline forced into eating something they didn’t want to as a child. Then they grow up, have their own children, and shock themselves by saying or doing nearly the very same thing to their own child.
“Just five more bites!”
“You can’t have your dessert until you finish those beans.”
“It’s good for you!”
“Don’t you want to grow up to be big and strong?”
It starts with infants. I see it nearly every day in my program, as well-intentioned, loving parents fill me in on their child’s unique feeding schedule and routines.
“She won’t be able to focus on the bottle without the white noise machine in the background.”
“You have to swaddle him to keep his hands from pushing the bottle out of his mouth.”
“She’ll fight it, but if you persist, she’ll drink five ounces.”
“I sneak bites of it into his mouth when he’s trying to eat the other foods.”
I nod and smile and do my best to radiate reassurance. Of course we will feed your baby. We will never let your baby go hungry. Then I explain about how we provide relationship-based care and that when the children have established a trusting relationship with their primary caregiver, feeding times are a joy. I talk about trust and respect and how infants are really very good at regulating themselves (when we trust them to). Our stomachs are generally about the size of our fist, I mention. Our fist! It expands to the size of our open hand when full. Then we look at the infant and consider the implications of this for a moment.
Then I ask the million dollar question: How does your baby let you know that they’re hungry? I want to know how you know that they’re hungry so that I’ll know what cues to look for before their need to feed has reached a critical point. When your baby tells me they’re hungry, I’ll feed them. When your baby tells me that they’re all done, we’ll be done with that feeding, even if they haven’t emptied the bottle or bowl. It’s an issue of respect.
Let’s be real… Our society needs more of this. We need to know when we’re all done. We need to know how to tune in to our bodies. We need to know how to say no to things and to be heard when we do so. Children of every age need to be allowed to make choices for themselves so that they will know how to make choices and how to respect the choices of others.
That said, I get it. I’m currently working with an infant who has established a real power struggle around feeding routines. She will ask to eat, but then she can’t seem to allow herself to do so. Her first instinct is to vehemently refuse food (breast, bottle, solids). Her parents persist and persist and persist until she eats what they consider to be an acceptable amount. It’s remarkable how long she can go between feedings and how little she can survive on, but this baby continues to grow and thrive, so I think she knows something we don’t. Intellectually, I know that I can trust this baby to eat when she’s hungry and needs to eat. Emotionally, however, it’s a completely different story when you offer to feed a baby (a baby that you have a loving relationship with) and they refuse, and refuse, and refuse to eat. I know on one level that she is fine. On another level, I’m stressed. I want to force her to eat. I get exasperated! I have actually said, to this eight month old infant, “Are you kidding me? You’re going to spit it out?” She looks at me with the wisdom of the ages shining in her eyes: “Yes. Yes I am.”
There are days when I reach a place of serenity regarding this infant and her feedings. When one of my co-workers asks about her schedule, I blissfully inform them, “She will let you know! Just follow her lead.” I breathe deeply, I remind myself of all I have learned of infants and feedings and this infant in particular, and I am calm. I am at peace. I am her student, she is my mentor. I observe her cues, prepare her bottle (just the way she likes it… once in awhile), and we settle in together happily for feeding. She looks brightly, happily into my face as she eagerly sucks in some milk. Then she spits it into my face before screwing her mouth firmly shut and wiggling away.
Then I have to start all over again, reminding myself of all that I know intellectually so that all that I feel emotionally can move to the backseat. This is not an easy process, but I know that this infant has come through my program and my life for a reason. She is here to teach me deep and lasting empathy for parents. She is here to remind me to respect and trust infants and young children to be able to regulate themselves. She is here to remind me to never establish these patterns of struggle surrounding feeding times that someone unfortunately established with her. Every child I work with has a lesson for me and I believe that this is hers. By the same token, I do my best to offer a consistent message to her: I’m here when you’re ready. And: I trust you.