When Karen Eriksen’s son began refusing almost all food at the age of two, it would take five years and several specialists to establish what the problem was.
My child lives on air alone. You think I am exaggerating, but not really. My seven-year-old boy, Finn, eats small quantities of dry white bread and chips (or potato balls) with tomato sauce. He also occasionally eats vanilla ice cream, pikelets or banana bread from a café. He drinks water, juice and sometimes strawberry milk. That’s about it.
Finn doesn’t eat sausages, hamburgers, spaghetti bol or vegemite sandwiches. No meat, no fish, no sausages, no pasta, no rice, no grainy bread, no cheese, no yogurt, no butter, no jam or honey. He will come home from a mates’ birthday party and not have eaten a thing. He is of average height and thin, but not skinny. He is a worry, every day.
My friends ask how I deal with it, and I answer that I don’t any longer; that I have given up. But, naturally, that is not true. Periods of resignation alternate with my gathering my strength and dragging him to see another health professional. We have seen a lot of people over the years. And last year, we got a satisfactory diagnosis. But only after five years of worry and trying to make Finn eat.
Finn was a normal-sized baby, eight days overdue and breastfed until his first birthday. He was, however, a very unsettled and colicky child, but nothing that a dummy and over the counter medication couldn’t fix. Solids went well - the usual mashed up food, but also fish, risotto, yogurt. At about the age two, he started to decline food. When almost three his sister was born, a traumatic event that he is still coming to terms with. He continued to decline food – and more and more varieties of it.
The health-centre nurse said that he looks very healthy, and that he is over the 90th percentile in weight and height. I wasn’t surprised about the height, since I am over 180cm and he has tall Scandinavian genes in him. Our GP suggested that we see a dietician, the first of three we consulted to no avail. It wasn’t that Finn didn’t like the food; he never even took it into his mouth to try. Pushing him to take something into his mouth triggered heaving and sometimes vomiting.
By the time Finn was three, my husband lost patience, and suggested starving him out, with the notion “No child will starve himself to death.” Not true! The attempt to make Finn eat family meals or nothing at all had to be aborted after a few days. Finn was vomiting water, and he was still not eating.
We tried star charts, instant and medium-term rewards, punishments and encouraging Finn to earn himself some computer time by trying something new. Good advice arrived from everywhere. I offered Finn food that was similar to the types of food that he did eat, made food more interesting, involved Finn in the making the food, signed him up for cooking classes, made smoothies, put apple puree in pancakes, added wholemeal flour to banana bread.... All without success; Finn would not eat any of the food. Home-made food made him suspicious.
He also won’t take oral medicine or supplements. Thank God he doesn’t get sick a lot.
The paediatrician - twice consulted about the eating issue – said, after blood had been taken, that all Finn’s results were fine, a “miracle”, and, “even if they were not, what are we going to do about it, as he doesn’t take medicine.” This was not what I wanted to hear.
In kindergarten, Finn’s teacher voiced concern about his gross motor skills that might affect his fine motor, and therefore writing skills. An occupational therapist diagnosed him with ‘sensory integration dysfunction’, well known in the US, which basically means that his nerves are not very well connected to his brain. That made him clumsy, likely to fall over easily and could also, as the reading I did no the subject informed me, affect his eating. The occupational therapy fixed his motor skill problems, but not his eating.
Next was a visit to a speech therapist to see whether he had problems with his throat and swallowing. No problem there.
Our twice-yearly visit to the dentist revealed one hole after another; and the need for filling number four in a seven-year old that also already has a crown - his pirate tooth we call it. “Bad enamel,” the children’s dentist said. Finn also lost eight milk teeth while his classmates were still showing off their first missing tooth.
The third dietician managed to make Finn eat an almond. After ten weeks of consultations, she told us that she could save her time and I could save my money; there was nothing she could do to help him.
When we were on holiday, the problem turned into a nightmare. Foreign food looks and tastes different from things at home, most parents will know that. With a diet of chips, not a lot can go wrong you would think – but far from it. In America, the chips still have the potato skins on, in Germany, they put parsley and/or paprika on them - a major problem. On overseas holidays, Finn lives on vanilla ice cream. In Croatia one year, he developed hand foot and mouth disease. The hospital diagnosed it as tonsillitis, he didn’t eat for ten days and came home thin as a stick.
It isn’t as if Finn is not also completely frustrated by eating the same stuff day in and out. He gets desperate, but can’t make himself taking something new in his mouth. Uncountable times he has vomited across the table when we made him try a bit of fish or chicken.
Last year, my equally worried, mother who lives in Germany, had had it. We arrived in Germany for our annual holiday and he was whisked into hospital on day two to have a gastroscopy. No prior consultation necessary - my mum organised it with the chief gastro guy, we paid in cash, an hour later we were out of there with some pictures and a diagnosis. Finn’s oesophagus was inflamed; everything pointed to reflux. A paediatrician in Hamburg confirmed the diagnosis and prescribed some anti-acid medication. Back in Australia, we eventually got an appointment with the a gastro specialist for children. He looked at the stomach pictures, felt his stomach and said he didn’t even have to talk to me to diagnose the problem.
It’s quite simple: Finn has got reflux; he has had it all his life. The acid burns his stomach and throat, and his bowel is lazy and often completely full. His reflux also explains his abnormally bad teeth: the enamel is eaten by the acid. Why did nobody suspect that earlier? Couldn’t the specialist children’s dentist at least voice some concern? Finn never complained about pain. Still, I feel guilty.
At least now we have a diagnosis, and the anti-acid medication works. Previously, Finn didn’t get any deep sleep due to his reflux, and therefore was overtired and angry all the time. Fortunately, he is a changed child since taking the medicine. He is much happier, settled and pain-free. But that doesn’t make him eat.
A child who has been in pain when eating for his whole life will be deeply suspicious of food, even if not in pain any longer. We are now seeking a specialist to desensitise Finn and overcome his disgust of food in tiny steps. Finn’s future looks a lot brighter – but I still believe that he should have been diagnosed at two, not at seven year, and that if he has been, he would have avoided the psychological scarring.
A note for Cradle 2 Kindy Parenting Solutions
Babies who are quite unsettled may be showing signs of reflux and should be treated immediately to avoid further complications. For more information on reflux or colic in babies and how to recognise the telltale signs please read Signs and Symptoms of Colic/Reflux Cradle to Kindy parenting coaches are specialized in recognising the symptoms of reflux and have practical tips to help you and your baby through this difficult time.
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