When you think about it, everyone has a strong opinion about food and eating. One adult may crave crunchy, salty chips while another needs to have a piece of chocolate each day. So why are we surprised when a baby expresses strong opinions about the different flavors and textures of baby formula and pureed food?
Adults with Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease often recite a list of foods that cause pain and burning. Unfortunately, babies cannot express themselves as precisely when foods and beverages are irritating to the throat or esophagus. A baby may use their only method of communication (i.e. crying) to indicate that the food is causing irritation and pain. Therefore, feeding a baby with reflux is often accompanied by fussing and even loud crying.
As a parent, it is terrifying and confusing when a baby won’t eat. It is easy to attribute turning away and crying as a naughty behavior or an attempt to manipulate us. When a baby stops eating completely due to reflux, the level of desperation is increased. It may be tempting to force a baby to eat or try another method such as a spoon or syringe. Feeding refusal may cause a parent to feel angry at the baby too.
Unfortunately, forcing a baby to eat or having an angry/sad face may actually make the situation worse. It is important to get medical treatment right away to decrease or eliminate the pain. When it takes weeks or months to reduce the pain and manage reflux, a baby may develop some habits and beliefs about food that are hard to change. A baby may begin to associate all food with pain and refuse to try even the “safe” foods. Mealtime may be associated with much fussing, turning away and refusing to cooperate. Your baby is trying to communicate that eating is scary, painful or both.
Here is a simple test to understand how unpleasant mealtime can be if you cannot communicate:
Get a big towel and wrap it around your neck like a bib. Ask another adult to feed you pureed food such as applesauce or yogurt, first slowly and then faster and faster. You cannot talk but you are allowed to use gestures. The feeder will keep feeding for an unknown period of time.
It is likely the first few bites will taste good. The spoon may be a bit awkward in your mouth and maybe not feel the same as when you feed yourself. When the food comes faster and faster, you may choke, cough, spit out food and feel like you are drowning in food. You may turn away or clamp your mouth shut so you can manage the food you have. Perhaps you will put your head down or cover your mouth with your hands. Sound familiar? This is what a baby or toddler would do in a similar feeding situation when they have an important message to communicate.
If your baby with reflux could talk, she would say:
- Sometimes eating hurts my throat and esophagus.
- Some foods hurt more than others. Sometimes I cannot tell the difference.
- I need you to go slow and steady when I try new foods.
- I need to eat slowly and carefully.
- I need to take a break so the food can slide down my throat and settle in my stomach.
- I need to hear your voice and see your face when I am eating.
- I need to feel your calm arms to show me that feeding is safe and comforting.
- I need you to be patient with me as I try to eat.
- I know you are trying your best to help me.
Think your baby may have acid reflux? Take our infant acid reflux assessment and check your child’s symptoms.