My son Malachi will turn 2 years old in a few days, along with his twin brother JJ. Malachi was diagnosed with dysphagia (difficulty swallowing) about a year ago and doctors said because of his cerebral palsy this condition was likely to only get worse. Malachi has not gotten worse. He can now drink water from a cup (albeit messily) and can eat foods the consistency of rice, beans and shredded chicken, though he still balks at chewier substances. The following are the tips I have for you on guiding your child to more independent eating. They may not work for everyone, but I hope they can help some of you!
1. Make a mess!
Meal times for babies are VERY messy affairs. With twins, I just had to accept that I was going to be sweeping the floor three times a day, washing six trays a day and wiping off twelve wriggling hands! With motor problems, your “baby” will probably be pretty messy for a long time to come. So accept it! The more mess he is able to make now, the faster he will learn what trajectory his hand needs to take to most efficiently get to his mouth. Parents (myself included) can often hold their children back by not allowing them to try. Unless your child is purposefully putting food where it ought not be, just repeat to yourself: It’s all good. This is what washcloths are for.
And take pictures of their adorable messy faces.
And send them to me.
2. Let him try the cup or the spoon or whatever.
Yeah, OK, for now he just clenches the spoon as tight as possible. So what? At least it’s an option for him to play-act with it. It might also plant the idea that you don’t always have to be part of his meal. Think of how you felt as a kid holding a big stick or the remote control or the phone: like suddenly there were all these possibilities and YOU had power over them. It didn’t really matter what you did. You had a scepter and that’s what was important. Later, you’ll figure out the other stuff.
3. Keep something tried-and-true on standby.
For us, this is Cheerios. Malachi gets some Cheerios every day and sometimes for every meal. It is good to make him try new foods and experiment with picking up different textures, but after a while, when he gets tired and frustrated, it’s OK to go back to something easier and familiar. I usually sprinkle the Cheerios on top of whatever he was eating so that in the process of picking them up he gets a little more of the previous food. But when it seems even Cheerios are too much, I pull out the yogurt and feed it to him. He absolutely adores yogurt.
Be careful not to push too hard or your child may be less inclined to try next time. Take the long view.
4. Mix foods.
Children with special needs (and many without) often have a hard time with variety and can get stuck on the same foods. Instead of making them eat a certain food item, blend it with something they do like or find it in a different texture. Malachi didn’t like the canned pears that I bought a whole box of, but when I mixed the same amount in a bowl of yogurt, he gobbled it all up. If it was important to me that he learn to like pears, then I could slowly start decreasing the amount of yogurt and I guarantee he would eventually eat them straight. This is what we did when we tried to get him off super-sugary Pediasure, every week or so there would be an ounce less Pedisure in his bottle and an ounce more coconut/rice milk mixture. If you are not having success with this method, go even more slowly, think in terms of weeks, not days. It’s not a race.
5. Get creative and widen your view at the grocery store.
It’s amazing the products I’ve found by looking around outside of the products I usually buy. For example, I had no idea you could buy pasta stars, just like those in “Chicken and Stars” soup. Those are very useful in my house because I can put spaghetti sauce in for instant spaghetti or butter and cheese for mac and cheese or whatever other noodle sauce my family is eating. Also, there are a lot of “puffed” products aimed at adults but that work fine for kids and dissolve in the mouth. Favorites around here are Veggie Sticks and Roasted Seaweed Snacks from Trader Joes.
6. Think about the ingredients and not the final product.
We think that pizza and lasagna, or tacos and enchiladas are different foods, but they’re really not. They are the same ingredients arranged in a different order. So, think of the food you are trying to create and use the basic ingredients. For example, before my son could chew at all, I would use whole wheat baby cereal and mix in spaghetti sauce and melted cheese. Ta-da. Mushy, nondescript, but tasty Italian food.
7. Canned goods are usually very mushy.
Draining a can of soup and offering the flavored mushy bits can be a hit. Or use the broth and add baby cereal to make it more of a mash. Same goes for canned fruits and veggies. Just watch the sodium and sugar levels.
8. Get a food mill.
I need to take this advice. We have a small baby mill but it would be good to get a bigger and more durable one. Anyway, it’s great because you can put many things you are eating into it and out comes mushy baby food!
9. Above all: Experiment!
Try as many new techniques and foods as you feel able to and foster a sense of exploration in your child. Listen to their cues and trust them to let you know what they can handle and when you are pushing too hard. Try to look at it as a game or activity and trust that just like a typical kid will get better and better at basketball, your child will get better and better at eating independently — as long as they are given progressive and achievable goals!