I was in denial for a solid month before Ayla started daycare. I just chose not to think about it. It seemed easier than dealing with how difficult it was going to be. But, inevitably, Ayla’s transition plan showed up in my inbox one day and I had to face reality: my maternity leave was over and it was time to hand my child over to someone else’s care. This entire period seems a little unfair: going back to work, sending your child to daycare for the first time and celebrating a first birthday--a glaring reminder that their infancy is somehow over. It’s a lot to process. You may not be surprised to learn that I cried every day for a week leading up to my return to work. It wasn’t the work part I was upset about; it was worrying about Ayla. Would she learn to sleep at daycare? Would they be able to meet her needs? Would she be happy? Did we make the right decision? Was she ready? Should I have extended my maternity leave and kept her at home for longer? Would she feel abandoned? All of these questions played on repeat in my head. But, inevitably, time marched forward, and before I knew it, I was dusting off my work clothes and putting my professional hat on after a year of messy buns and stretchy pants.
Ayla began eating solid foods at five and half months. We started with vegetables, slowing introducing each food group until she had tried most things by the time she was ten months old. I was thrilled that she seemed to be a great little eater, rarely turning down new foods that were offered (with the exception of broccoli). We primarily chose to follow the methods of baby led weaning, but threw a few purees into the mix as well. All in all, Ayla was exposed to numerous textures and flavours by an early age. She didn’t experience any obvious allergies or intolerances and we moved confidently forward, much to this nutrition nut’s satisfaction.
I have learned over and over again that, when it comes to babies, nothing lasts forever. If you’re going through a challenging phase, most of the time it will pass and you just need to put your head down and shoot for survival. Alternatively (and unfortunately), if you’re experiencing a good phase, learn to enjoy every moment… because there’s a good chance it won’t be sticking around either. Knowing all of this, I shouldn’t have been surprised when Ayla began to turn her nose up at most foods. It all began around 12 months (she is now 13 months). Trusty, staple foods were being left on her tray or thrown to the ground. Lunch time would result in very little food being eaten at all. Ayla began to create a rather short list of acceptable food items and before we knew it, we had entered the dreaded picky eater stage.
I thought for sure I had another year before hitting this phase of our lives that most mothers talk about. If I’m being honest, I was thinking maybe we would even avoid it altogether… you now… because I was using all of the right techniques and nutrition is "my thing". Spoiler alert: even if you think you’re “doing it right”, your child is their own person and will do exactly what they damn well please, whether you like it or not. And that is precisely what the universe is taking the opportunity to teach me, yet again. And one more note on "doing it right": we loved BLW, but Ayla’s current favourite foods are smooth or pureed. So if you went down the puree route, don’t worry too much about your baby having a “texture” issue later on. We are a prime example that it can happen either way.
So, how am I navigating this phase of Ayla’s nutrition journey? The biggest thing I do is try to keep my stress levels in check. It’s easy to be concerned about whether your child is getting all of the nutrients and calories they need when they seem to be surviving on yogurt and bananas alone. But trust that, if you remain calm, and continue to be their nutritional guide, they will get what they need. Even with a short list of acceptable food items, there are still little daily hacks that you can use to boost the nutritional profile of each meal. For example, as you may have guessed, one of the foods that Ayla is currently always down with is yogurt. Yogurt is a great food in and of itself. If you choose the right brand, it is high in fat, protein and probiotics. I flavour it with different foods so she continues to be exposed to various tastes (nut butter, unsweetened applesauce, mashed berries, cinnamon, etc.). I also always add a fat like chia seeds or hemp hearts. This is also where I toss in Ayla’s vitamins, like fish oil and D. So, although yogurt may seem like a simple food, it can be a catalyst for a ton of other nutrients. Another hack I use is adding things like grated zucchini and eggs to oatmeal! If you make your oats on the stove top, you can stir in an egg until cooked without changing the flavour or texture of the dish much at all. So, although Ayla doesn’t currently enjoy eggs on their own, I know she’s getting the benefits of this nutrition powerhouse in other ways.
The other main thing that we continue to do during this picky period is expose Ayla to a variety of foods. This can be frustrating, preparing food that you are fairly confident is going to be left on the plate. But I encourage you not to give up, because exposure is the only way they will ever have the opportunity to enjoy new food items. It may not happen tomorrow or even next month, but you can bet it won’t happen at all if they are never given the chance to try it. I try to choose foods that we are already eating for dinner and preparing anyway, or add simple foods to her plate like sliced cucumber or cheese (hey Ayla, remember when you liked both of those things three months ago? Good times). I am not a child-specific nutrition expert. My training is primarily rooted in adult nutrition. But I have done extensive reading on this topic, as it has definitely become a passion since becoming a mother, and the one word that comes up time and time again is exposure. Just keep at it. Build it and they will come…
Dave and I work very hard not to have any sort of an agenda during meal time (easier said than done). We serve Ayla a meal that includes a few (but not too many) flavours and textures, providing her with some choice. We try not bring many items of food to her mouth for her (even though we’re sure that, if she just got a small taste, she would love it!) and we try to keep the mood light. This may sound kind of dumb since Ayla is only 13 months old, but I am very confident that babies can read your mood and that she understands a great deal more than she can communicate to us. This is also just a practice that I hope we continue well beyond Ayla’s toddler years, in hopes that it will help her develop a healthy relationship with food. We eat as a family as often as possible so that she sees us enjoying a variety of foods and has proper eating behaviours modelled for her daily.
Finally, I try to keep in mind where we are in our lives right now. I just returned to work four weeks ago after a year of maternity leave, and Ayla began daycare. She cut her first teeth and has been hit with about 37 viruses since being exposed to so many new children (feels like 37, anyway). All of these things have the ability to drastically affect her appetite, which makes sense. I remember that she won’t have the same hunger levels every day, just like we don’t, and that’s ok. It will take time to fully adjust to our new routine, and once she’s accepted it as her new normal, we may see another shift in her eating.
So, that’s where we’re at! If you are experiencing anything similar with your little one, know that I feel your pain. It can be a huge source of worry and frustration as a parent. But know that you are doing great. Our children are not robots. They are likely still getting most, if not all, of what they need and their eating habits will probably change again before you know it. Remember the old saying: you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. Keep pushing forward, as I will be, and let’s all take a deep breath together….
Parents of picky eaters, unite!