The Trauma Trap: Impact on Families and Feeding

Trauma: • an injury (such as a wound) to living tissue caused by an extrinsic agent • a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury • an emotional upset   We don’t usually use the word trauma when discussing feeding disorders, but we should.   Children who have experienced significant emotional stress during feeding because of GI discomfort, poor oral control, cardio-respiratory issues, or forced feeding are at risk for disordered behavioral responses around feeding for many months (or years) to come. Infants born prematurely exhibit feeding problems due to neurological and respiratory immaturity and the myriad of issues that can arise while in the NICU. These challenges follow them out of the NICU and into the home, and while being able to go home is a milestone in and of itself, there are many more milestones to overcome when it comes to feeding. “During development, the cognitive, motor, emotional and ‘state’-regulating areas of the brain organize in response to experiences. And in each of the diverse brain systems which mediate specific functions, some element of previous experience is stored.” (Perry, 1999) The infant’s early experiences (good or bad) and their responses during feeding down the road are inevitably linked. Take Nash*, an 18 month old (corrected age) who struggles to get through a meal without gagging and vomiting. Born at 30 weeks gestation, he relied on a naso-gastric (NG) tube for nutrition for 6 months, which involved the trauma of reinsertion when the tube had to be changed as well as the chronic discomfort inherent in the placement of a...

My Child Choked and Won’t Eat! Help!

We recently got a question from a mother whose daughter had a choking episode and is refusing to eat. “Our six year old had a choking episode two weeks ago, but the food popped out pretty quickly. She is now only drinking Pediasure. Our pediatrician is not concerned since she is drinking Pediasure (“Total nutrition” he said!), but our daughter is panicked about choking again and seems to be getting worse. We called the local eating disorder treatment center, and they can see her- in three months! We don’t know what to do!” (Assuming her weight is stable or minimal decline, and that her development and eating were typical before the aversive event, and assuming the pediatrician has ruled out any reason behind the choking event…) A few general thoughts for this mom and others with the same concern: You are right not to wait three months! Most children in this situation don’t need inpatient or intensive Eating Disorder treatment, but things can get worse quickly. This is not an uncommon event, but scary all around. EARLY support leads to best the outcome. Your doctor isn’t too worried, but you are seeing a dramatic difference and your gut says you need help. The phobia can become more entrenched the longer it goes on. (See case study below we wrote for doctors on Medscape for more. Part of why we are sharing this is for parents to have it to show to the child’s doctor if they need help finding resources, or having concerns taken seriously.) This is a traumatic event, and can take time to heal, but you should see steady progress with support. Find a therapist...

A Journey to Healing and Growth: One Mother’s Telling

Bethany’s Journal: Amari’s Journey of Healing   Amari, age two, was adopted at age 14 months from Ethiopia and initially had some hoarding behaviors. After being home for about a year, her eating changed dramatically, with no identifiable cause. While underlying medical causes were being evaluated, Bethany needed help. The following are excerpts from Bethany’s notes and emails on the first few months during the transition from an anxious/pressured feeding relationship to one focused on routine, avoiding pressure, and healing anxiety. This post is largely excerpted from Katja’s first book Love Me, Feed Me,  focused on adoptive and fostering families. Bethany used responsive, trust-based philosophies expanded upon in the STEPS+ approach in our book, Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating. This post is for informational purposes, and not meant to replace care of the individual child.   February 10, day one: A few months ago, she started to get pickier and ate less and less, eventually eating about five bites at each meal and down to two cups of milk a day and gaining nothing. She would pocket and take an hour to finish those bites. In one year home, she grew four inches and gained only nine ounces . . . We saw a nutritionist who told us how to sneak calories into her food. We saw a speech pathologist who determined that the issue was “psych” and barely glanced at her. In the last week, Amari has gotten SO much worse. She hardly drinks 1 and a half cups of milk/day, drinks nothing else, and takes about three bites at meals. I can force feed her more, but she gags constantly and...

Trust Your Turtle: Patience with Picky Eating Progress

Here’s a story I read recently and shared with a client when she asked, “How can I get my daughter to accept new foods on her plate once she’s feeling good about her safe foods? Can’t I just put them on her plate?”   A woman was with her college geology class on a field trip by a river. She noticed a turtle up the river bank near a road and worried that the turtle would get hit by a car. So, she carried the turtle back down the hill and put it in the water. Afterwards, the professor came to her and said, “That turtle has probably spent weeks crawling up the hill to lay her eggs in the muddy slope and now she will have to start all over again.” The moral was, “Ask the turtle first.” (Gloria Steinem from her book, My Life on the Road) (See below our clarification of “ask”. Most children won’t want to be verbally queried along the way. Our moral is to be responsive to your turtle.)    What does this have to do with feeding? Well, many children with extreme picky eating have anxiety around foods, and often have struggled for years. As parents, and even professionals, we hope for and want improvements NOW, or in say,  six weeks. But progress is generally slow, slow, slow, and it might not look like what we think of as “progress” (eating new foods). Sometimes when we miss early signs of progress (less anxiety, eating more safe foods, curious about foods but not yet tasting or eating them...) it is easy to want to rush the process, to pick up our little turtles and carry...

Confessions of a Mommy Feeding Therapist

Working with families who struggle to feed their children on a daily basis, I often hear, “Your kids must be great eaters!” or “I bet you don’t have any trouble at the table with your kids!”.  Well, let me tell you, it isn’t quite that simple. As a feeding therapist, I am confident that what I am suggesting to parents will at least help, and not hinder, their child’s progress with eating. When I am working with someone else’s child, I can see their issues objectively. That makes it fairly easy to navigate next steps and to tease apart what may be going wrong. I have done loads of research and reading on the topic, wrote a book, and provide therapy for children from newborns to teenagers. I do trainings for other therapists, physicians, and students. So you would think I would have all the answers with my own three kids, right? Not so much. At home, things are a little more complicated. Do my kids sit at the table and eat at most meals? Yes. Are mealtimes a beautifully harmonious experience where all three of my children eat complicated dishes with a smile on their face? Hasn’t happened yet- I am still waiting. So what does a feeding therapist’s family mealtime actually look like?  Here is a window into my world: Setting:  We eat at our kitchen table for all meals, using family-style serving. I do a lot of “pile-on” and deconstructed meals and we don’t pre-plate the kids’ food. I work full-time and the kids have lots of activities, so our meals are fairly simple, and I get take-out about once a week....

Navigating Relational Feeding in a Medically-Minded World: When Calories Aren’t the Whole Picture

For many families, weekly (sometimes daily) doctor and therapy appointments are the norm rather than the exception. They strive to make everything fit into the schedule, because doing so keeps their child “well”- or at least not sick- and hopefully making medical or developmental gains due to professional, sometimes intensive intervention.  This may be a temporary scenario, or not. For parents of chronically ill or medically fragile children, every day begins with a status check: Is he running a fever? Is she going to hold down her feeds today? Did I give her all of her meds on time? Why is he doing X? Then on to the scheduling and phone calls- to the doctor’s office to sign a request for records to be sent to the out-of-state specialist, to the insurance company to fight yet another battle about payment for the child’s numerous procedures and office visits. For the parents who live this reality, it can be mind-numbing and terrifying all at once. Having a child who is well is the exception rather than the rule. Being truly well, however, is not the same as not being sick. For many kids, they have never been truly “healthy”, as the WHO states: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” What about these situations in otherwise “healthy” children? the baby who screams every time she sees a bottle, but takes a small amount when it is forced into her mouth the toddler who throws up at least once a day after being fed the preschooler who exists on Pediasure because he doesn’t...

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