I’ve come to realize parents whose children don’t have feeding difficulties take a lot of the learning process around eating for granted. Opening your mouth for food when it’s given to you is a learned behavior. Not choking on it once it’s in your mouth is a skill acquired through placing things in your mouth over and over again until your gag reflex is pushed back to its appropriate location. Chewing is a learned behavior as well as moving your tongue from side to side in order to place it appropriately between your teeth.
Motivation is the key to helping this process along and many children enjoy eating. They like the taste of food and they like the feeling they get when their belly is full. When a child’s tummy is frequently upset or it hurts to swallow they lose the motivation to swallow their food. Sometimes that causes children not to want anything in their mouth at all. Other times a child who loves to taste food will refuse to swallow and spits it back out once they’re finished with it. One thing I can guarantee, if you try to force a child to eat who isn’t eating because of pain or discomfort they will most certainly be one who does not permit anything in their mouth whatsoever.
Teaching a child to eat who is not motivated to eat is a long and arduous process that can take weeks to years. If there’s an underlying medical condition causing the pain or discomfort it may not be possible to get a child to eat enough to sustain them until the underlying discomfort is addressed. Each skill the child is not motivated to learn has to be taught to them step by step. All of those things babies do as they grow and learn to eat food? None of them are automatic once your child grows older. Not even swallowing is automatic.
I wanted to share this with all of you for a few reasons. One, the sense of failure when you can’t teach your child to eat as quickly as the other children around them is overwhelming. That alone could easily be a source of depression if friends and loved ones aren’t supportive. Two, there is absolutely nothing you can do to make a child eat who is in physical discomfort. Even when the physical discomfort goes away you can invite them to eat and they’ll hopefully learn to enjoy eating but you cannot force them to suddenly enjoy something which had previously caused them pain. Lastly, if this reaches even one grandparent, aunt, uncle, friend, cousin, etc. who changes their treatment of a mother with a tube-fed child as a result, it will be worth every ounce of energy I’ve put into this website.
If you’re a family member reading this please take this away if you take away nothing else. No matter where you believe blame lies. No matter what you think is or isn’t true about the child’s medical condition. Your best option is to be as supportive as possible. That’s the only way to have a healthy relationship with the child and their caregiver.