The Feeding Mistake Parents Don’t Even Know They Are Making

by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD on June 21, 2013

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“I’ve got the best eater!” a new mom gloats.  I don’t even have to ask how old the child is as I know he’s under two and a brand new eater.

“My kid is so picky, I can’t get him to eat X.” When I hear this, I also don’t have to ask the age as I’m pretty certain the child’s somewhere between 2 and 6.

“I can’t believe my Jake is trading lunches — he used to be such a good eater.” Of course this is the school-aged kid and the challenge of outside influences.

By the time the independent teen years come, I usually don’t hear anything.  Instead it’s more like a frustrating eye roll because many parents give up on feeding.

All these parents are making the same feeding mistake.  I should know, because early on in my feeding career I made this same mistake too.

Trouble when I least expected it

I enter mothered very confident in what I would feed my daughter.  I knew how good breastfeeding was for her and admittedly had a touch of arrogance about my plans.  Then my baby girl came into the world and she didn’t like to breastfeed.  In fact, she wasn’t very good at it.

I charged ahead, hiring four different lactation consultants.  Feeding her was a drag for her and me.  I felt like I was forcing her to latch and suck, and our not-so-fun sessions went on for almost an hour.  When her growth slowed, I supplemented her with pumped milk in a bottle.

When she was just 7 weeks, she refused to breastfeed and I was devastated.  I was learning a very painful lesson: the reality of feeding my child was vastly different from the theory of it.  Even though I was taught that “breast milk is best,” I wasn’t prepared for how hard it was going to be and what to do if things didn’t go as planned.

During those emotional weeks, I scoured breastfeeding books and the internet for solutions to my daughter’s odd suck only to find advice that made me want to scream: “If it hurts you’re not doing it right.”

Really?

After my daughter stopped breastfeeding, I pumped milk fulltime and actually started enjoying feeding her.  Each day I still offered her my breast, but it was a no-pressure, playful kind of thing.  Then when she was the ripe old age of 4 months the most miraculous thing happened: she started to breastfeed.

Getting get caught up in my version of the story

The feeding mistake I made early on, one that many parents make without even knowing, is viewing feeding from my (adult) perspective, instead of from the eyes of my child.  No wonder my daughter chose not to breastfeed — the whole atmosphere was completely  negative.  Babies want to form an attachment with their parents, and my drive to get breast milk into her at any cost was getting in the way.

While every parent wants to take credit for the older baby who eats everything, it’s actually to be expected as growth is at its highest and little minds are still developing.  Instead of gloating, parents can get busy taking advantage of this stage by feeding a variety of food (not bland baby food) and bringing little ones to the table.

And most toddlers aren’t picky eaters as a result of what parents do or don’t do, they just aren’t growing as fast and naturally become skeptical of new foods.  Forcing, catering and bribing only make this already lengthy stage last longer.

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School-age children aren’t trying to be a pain asking for their friend’s food (or trading lunches), they simply want to belong and that drives their food decisions.  At this stage, children need help managing outside influences and parents can help guide them and balance out things at home.

Last but not least, despite how teens act, they need their parents more than ever.  Without enough support, they won’t make good food decisions and that dieting they experiment with could turn dangerous.  Keeping those family dinners going, encouraging an open dialogue around food and letting them loose in the kitchen is important.

Seeing feeding from your child’s perspective

Most parents don’t know that children aren’t supposed to have eating all figured out by the time they are in grade school.  It takes 18 long years, about 28,000 meals, for them to learn about food and to become good eaters (and more time to refine after that).

The whole dynamic of feeding changes when parents learn to see things through their child’s perspective.  It not only helps them become more confident feeders, it ends the blame game.  In Fearless Feeding, we help parents understand what’s going on with development and growth which helps explain food related behavior at every stage. Knowing your child’s unique food personality also helps.

So when I start getting frustrated with a particular food stage, I realize it has more to do with me than my kids.  I make a conscious effort to put myself in my kids’ shoes.  They don’t have the experience with food that I have.  They don’t think like me.  And their tastes are still evolving and their bodies still growing.  But food is fun for them, they are exposed to a variety and they are happy eaters.  That alone tells me I am doing my job.

What about your child’s eating frustrates you the most?

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Lori June 21, 2013 at 12:24 pm

This is a great post. Thank you so much for the reminders and helpful advice you continually share with us. I will keep this in mind with my 1 year old who eats most everything and who will probably become less so into the toddler years.

I used to be so concerned for my now 4 year old who refused to eat dinner every night. She is now trying a few things here and there, which is HUGE for her.

I am hosting a school lunch recipe exchange and taste testing party in August for the moms in my neighborhood. Would you like to donate one copy of your book for me to use as a giveaway at the gathering?

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD June 23, 2013 at 8:38 pm

Lori — That sounds great! I will email you to get the address to send the book to. Glad things are going well with your daughter!

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Kia Robertson June 21, 2013 at 12:37 pm

This is such a fantastic post Maryann! I grew up an extremely picky eater, I didn’t like being picky, it made a lot of social situations very difficult. When I had my daughter I was intent to do everything I could to set her up with healthy eating habits but I also always left room for her to be exactly who she was. Just because I love prunes doesn’t mean that she has to :)

I think your advice to see things from the child’s perspective is so key in helping parents feed their children with less stress. I’m sure it would be very challenging for a parent that has never been picky to “deal” with a picky eater but when you can take a compassionate approach and see eating from a child’s point of view I think it helps to give parents more patience and understanding.

Thanks again for writing such a helpful post!

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD June 23, 2013 at 8:32 pm

Thanks Kia! That’s great that you are able to take your perspective as a picky child and use it better feed your daughter. Accepting children’s eating capabilities is so important as is having an expectant attitude that they will indeed eat more of a variety as they grow. .

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Elysa June 21, 2013 at 2:34 pm

Great post and such as great tip to put ourselves in their shoes. Thank you!

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD June 23, 2013 at 8:34 pm

Your welcome Elysa! Thanks for reading!

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Janet Nezon June 23, 2013 at 8:03 am

Thank you Maryann for sharing your experience, and for bringing this issue into focus. Feeding our kids as they grow and move through different ages & stages can be a real roller-coaster ride! Just when you think you have it all worked out, everything can change. Knowing the underlying reasons behind shifts in eating behavior is so helpful to parents. I love your advice to view what’s going on from the child’s perspective. It’s a valuable reminder to parents who, with the best of intentions, often focus on “getting food into” their kids. Shifting our viewpoint can help everyone to relax, and that alone often makes eating much more positive for everyone!

The youngest of my three children is now 18, and I just did the math to realize how many meals we’ve all been through. It’s mind-boggling! It feels like only yesterday that I was sitting here with babies, toddlers & school-age kids. Last night my 20-year old invited the family over and cooked us all a wonderful dinner. Not only was the food healthy and balanced, but the lovely experience of being together as a family around the table simply made me beam.

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD June 23, 2013 at 8:36 pm

Thanks Janet. How rewarding it must be to see your child grow into an adult who is a good eater (and likes to cook). That is a sure sign you did a good job. Thanks for sharing!

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Megan June 24, 2013 at 11:06 am

Great article!

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Jennifer Hatfield (@TherapyLearnSvc) June 27, 2013 at 1:34 pm

Loved this. As a feeding therapist, one of the first things that I do when consulting with a family is to ask them how they would feel if someone told them they had to finish a plateful of a food they didn’t like, take “one bite” of something that didn’t look good to them or eat when they weren’t hungry. Your post is spot on and I begin to add this to my list of resources for my clients. Thank you!

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Helena November 22, 2013 at 12:18 pm

What about your child’s eating frustrates you the most? So glad that I found this post!

My 7-month-old son is still a new eater. Initially he ate eagerly, lunging for the spoon. At that time, I only gave him one solid meal a day – up to 2.5 oz of fruit puree or 2 tbsp of oat cereal mixed with breast milk. Since increasing both the frequency and the size of each solid meal, he has stopped eating as eagerly, often eating less than half of what I had hoped to feed him. I try singing to him to set a positive mood, and that helps a little, but I do find his disinterest frustrating, and I would definitely welcome tips on how to encourage him to eat more without forcing the issue and creating a poor foundation for his relationship with food.

On the bright side, I find that his breastfeeding sessions have been more productive during these same days that he isn’t eating (solids) well. He nurses for longer duration and doesn’t spit up nearly as much as he did only a week or two ago.

So, should I just take it easy and continue to attempt to feed him 3 small meals a day (per the guidance of table 2.5 in your book) without worrying about whether he actually finishes? Eventually, he’ll get there, right? Trying to stay fearless here… Thanks in advance!

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD November 22, 2013 at 12:24 pm

Helena,

It may be that he isn’t interested in puree so much. Are you increasing texture and offering some soft finger foods?

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Helena November 24, 2013 at 11:01 am

I offer him lumpy oatmeal, mashed raw banana, and ground chicken. So he’s getting a little texture.

He has shown an interest in reaching for and smearing food that lands on his high chair tray. However, I have not tried finger foods yet, as I am concerned about the choking risk. What do you find to be the least risky finger foods for a 7-month-old?

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