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How to Cope When Your Child Won't Eat

10/01/2016 21:38 GMT | Updated 10/01/2017 10:12 GMT

When I was pregnant with my first daughter Susie, I didn't really think much about feeding beyond the (sometimes) three-hourly milk feeds I soon became familiar with. I did have visions of myself wearing a pretty pinny, cooking up nutritious meals which my curly haired toddler would wolf down with delight. That was before I knew anything about toddlers (and my toddler in particular).

From the moment Susie was born, she never had a big appetite. I remember reading the guideline amount on the side of the formula carton. She never even came close to the recommended amount. Some days she would only take a few sips from each bottle I offered. I was beside myself with worry. I whisked her to the GP who, after examining her and stating that she was perfectly happy and healthy, said to me, 'Have you considered that maybe she just isn't hungry?'

At the time the GP's statement annoyed me. How could a baby not be hungry? Other parents I knew were reporting babies who drained their bottles and screamed for more afterwards. I think Susie only ever drank a full bottle once and I felt like having a party afterwards. But 6 years on, now I really know her, I see that the GP was right. Some days, she just isn't that hungry.

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Soon we progressed to solid foods and I quickly binned my idea of the pinny, nutritious meals and delighted toddler. Susie quickly asserted which foods she would not tolerate at all. Some days she seemed hungry and would eat more but she would never eat something she didn't like, no matter how hungry she was. And a good meal for her was at least half the portion eaten by a 'normal' child. Some days she would hardly eat anything at all.

I read and digested all the advice. Try new foods fifteen times I was told on a regular basis. Blah blah blah. It didn't work. Susie was determined in her fussiness. Early on, I could count the things she would eat on two hands. Over the years that list has diminished to one hand.

It became a battle of wills. I began to feel sick to my stomach as each mealtime approached. I started to absolutely hate feeding her - the anxiety I felt about her health and the feelings of failure as a mother were too much. There is a sizeable dent in our kitchen bin from the day it bore the brunt of my frustrations and I kicked it.

As a mother, feeding your child is one of your most important jobs. I was failing at that and I felt like an awful parent. There was no way Susie was getting everything she needed from her diet. I voiced this concern to a health visitor, who said her weight was fine but recommended supplements (probably to calm me down more than anything).

Now at age 6, not much has changed.

Except me.

Mealtimes are a much happier affair these days. This isn't because Susie has suddenly started to love food, but because I've stopped beating myself up about my 'failures' in this department.

There is much advice available for dealing with fussy eaters. But I found that there is a lack of advice on how to deal with the feelings of anxiety and failure the parent feels when their child just won't eat.

I wish someone had told me the following when I first started making colourful purees and proudly freezing them in ice cube trays:

It's not your fault.

I tried my hardest to introduce Susie to a variety of foods. I spent hours cooking, blending and freezing different meals. Most of them ended up thrown on the floor in disgust or at the bottom of our dented bin.

Susie's fussiness and apathy towards food is part of her personality; it has been there since birth. I can see that now.

I have a friend who did everything by the book - baby led weaning, meal planning, getting her kids involved with cooking etc. She cooks the most wonderful and varied meals for her family daily. One of her children will eat anything; the other is incredibly fussy and hardly eats any of her delicious dishes. The lesson here is that if your child refuses to eat a variety of foods, it is part of who they are.

You need to stop blaming yourself and find ways to work with it.

It may be beyond your control

It took me a long time to accept that I had little control over Susie's eating habits.

Just because I spent ages cooking a meal and asking (begging) her to eat it didn't mean that she would.

More often than I care to admit, my feeling of helplessness and worry exhibited themselves in anger. I would shout. I would cry. But getting angry and yelling, 'you will sit there until you finish it!' never once helped. It made mealtimes even more fraught.

Eventually I learned to accept Susie for the child she was and not the child I wanted her to be. I made myself chill out and gave her what she wanted (within reason). If all she would eat was a bowl of plain pasta and a few peas then that was better than nothing. Since I stopped feeding Susie's fussiness with negative attention, mealtimes have become much more relaxed.

It isn't how I dreamt family meals would be. But this is how they are. Since I accepted this it has made us all a lot happier.

You May Have to Think Outside the Box

It took me a while to realise that Susie is not a three meals a day person. She prefers to eat little and often. Her tummy obviously doesn't tolerate a lot of food in one sitting, so now she has about five or six micro meals every day. Each meal may be a sparrow's amount but it all adds up.

This way of eating is so alien to me that it took me a long while to understand how Susie's body worked.

Read the advice, but don't take it as law

I generally steer clear of articles telling you what you should and shouldn't do as a parent. When dealing with fussy eaters there seems to be an abundance of said advice. If you try the various suggestions and they don't work, it just adds to the feelings of failure.

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Most of the recommendations I tried never worked. A few worked at certain times, but not always. When I began to realise that my role was to understand her relationship with food and encourage her, instead of trying to fit it around pre-conceived notions of what and how she should be eating, life became easier for us both.

Now at age six, Susie is skinnier than the average child her age (though not underweight). She's rarely ill and I have never understood how that is. There are lots of foods she still refuses to eat but she has widened her horizons since starting school.

I'd be lying if I said that I was happy about her diet, but I have given up trying to force her to eat. I have accepted that while we all tuck into our Christmas dinners, she will nibble on a pizza. I've made allowances for the fact that when we go out to eat; she will dine on a piece of unbuttered bread.

I do have hope for the future and I've finally let go of the guilt I felt for years. She is healthy and happy and I know I've done my best, even if my best wasn't always right.

Aimee Foster is the co-founder of mum friendship website Mum Amie, where she also blogs about parenting, baby loss and well being. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.