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What I’ve Learned about Feeding My Daughter with ARFID

By Liz McLean, F.E.A.S.T. Volunteer

This is what I’ve learned, not what “studies show” or experts say. Hopefully it helps.

Trust your gut Mom, ARFID is real

Long before a mother seeks a diagnosis, she senses that something is off with her child’s eating. Something is wrong. When she voices concern, she may be surrounded by friends, family, and practitioners saying things like, “she’s just a picky eater”, “it’s a power struggle”, “don’t be a short-order cook”, “who’s in charge here”, or “she’ll eat when she’s hungry.” Her child may fail to thrive, drop off their growth curve, or not get enough varied nutrition. While mom may not know the term ARFID, she knows that her child isn’t just being obstinate.

As moms, we know in our guts. It’s something more than picky eating and attention seeking. Keep listening to your intuition. Know that it’s real.

Don’t mess with your loved one’s safe foods. Ever.

One of my daughter’s safe foods is oatmeal. Just oatmeal. Made with water, no milk, no brown sugar, etc. During refeeding I was a resourceful mom, got online, and read about things to add to oatmeal to bump up the calories. Surely, I can sneak a tablespoon of avocado oil that would bump up calories by 200 and she won’t notice . . .  She always noticed and wouldn’t eat it at all. And what was far worse than her not eating supplemented oatmeal was my undermining the trust she had in me; trust that was essential for future meals and refeeding. Going forward did I give up on trying to add calories to food using things like avocado oil? No way. However, I was always upfront and sought permission from my daughter.

Be prepared for safe foods to change.

ARFID is irrational in that foods that were safe for a long time can become unsafe to your child.

Unfortunately that switch sometimes occurs right after stocking up. “What? You used to love this Naan?? They just changed the color of their logo. See, the nutrients and ingredients are the same. Let’s do a blind taste test! No. Who’s going to eat this?? I’m gluten free. Sigh. Who wants to go to the park and feed the ducks? Is the food shelf open?”

This is where moms use their super powers of adaptability and try to add other foods.

Eating support differs during refeeding and after weight restoration.

 After my daughter was initially diagnosed and we were sent home with the mandate of adding weight… no matter what. It required tough love. It was hard, but the message was simple. “Nothing happens and we don’t leave the table until you’ve had the amount the nutritionist and doctor have ‘prescribed.’ I love you too much to let you not eat.”

Once my daughter was weight restored, eating support looked different.. With five plus weeks of exposure therapy we learned about the body’s response to anxiety.

How did she manage it? Small challenges were given that put her in a manageable, yet challenging, level of anxiety. She had to be uncomfortable enough to where she experienced that it was temporary and over time it would subside. I also needed to serve food without aids or even words of praise or encouragement. Constant reassurance and diversion only kept the anxiety high. I had to put the food down on the table and let go of the outcome. She had to struggle and I had to lovingly detach. Ironically, this was scarier for me than refeeding.

My child is trying her very best every time she sits down at that table. And so am I.

 Any change, growth, or recovery doesn’t happen in a straight line. There are days with no sign of ARFID. Other days she might tense as I put food on the table or try to talk a lot. I had to remind myself to take a deep breath, go to the kitchen for napkins, and sit down to eat my meal – regardless. When I let go with love more, my child owns the problem more.

Later, away from the table, I can acknowledge and talk about how far we’ve come together.

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