a mother breastfeeding her child

Family Health

My Daughter’s Skinny, She Won’t Eat and I Worry It’s My Fault

Oct 9, 2019

My daughter runs with her arms outstretched, her red-hued hair catching in the sunlight.

With her arms wide, she reminds me of an ethereal bird about to take flight. Her name is Eloise, and she lives up to her name — she's as fiery and precocious as the literary character we named her after.

But as our third daughter, she’s proven to us that we aren’t the experts in parenting that we thought we were.

Read More from the author Brianna Bell: How Relinquishing Control Over Our House Helped Save My Marriage

At 20 months old, Eloise continues to remain an anomaly in our family. While the rest of us eat with a ferocious appetite, Eloise is steadfast in her disinterest and refusal to eat. As her mother, my instincts tell me it’s more than disinterest, although allergy testing and elimination diets have failed to deliver a diagnosis.

We’ve prayed she’d grow out of her aversion to food, but at nearly two, she continues to refuse to eat, pushing away purees and sliced fruit in equal displeasure.

Her weight is low — a waif little girl who is prone to catching every virus to which she’s exposed. We all worry about her. Our pediatrician is on speed dial, and I regularly check in with occupational therapists, trying my best to get her to eat the foods she’s meant to. She’s been tested for a host of illnesses, poked and probed by more doctors than I can count, but she continues to remain without a diagnosis.

Whatever is placed in her mouth will be chewed and spit out, leaving me to wonder why I even bother.

She is not failure to thrive, although I worry that we teeter dangerously close.

She receives sufficient calories and nourishment, for now, because she breastfeeds. Her frequency of feeds is nearer to a newborn that an almost two-year-old.

Meal time in our home requires careful precision, choosing foods that are high fat, and also of varying flavours, colours and textures. A typical meal might include bite-sized strawberries, cubed cheddar cheese, naan bread, diced cucumber, tender shredded chicken and high fat yogurt. I offer her these foods knowing that most will end up on the floor or pushed aside. 

Read about some options if you're introducing solids: Starting Solids — Do I Choose Baby-Led Weaning Or Spoon Feeding?

Whatever is placed in her mouth will be chewed and spit out, leaving me to wonder why I even bother.

Inevitably, she will cry out at the end of the meal, pulling down my shirt to nurse hungrily at my breasts, a tear sliding down my cheek in defeat.

At night I find myself running down a rabbit hole of fears and anxieties. What have I done wrong? Am I making things worse by nursing her so much? My instincts tell me that my breasts have kept her from a feeding tube, and that without my miraculous milk supply we would be worse off. But I’ve been accused of filling her up with my milk and spoiling her by giving her what she wants.

We are two beating hearts operating like a single unit, and that’s a beautiful thought in the short-term, but it’s become a burden I no longer want to carry.

I know that can’t be true. I’ve offered her foods first and tried telling her she cannot nurse. But I know that to stop nursing would be to risk starvation, and I cannot go down that road.

In the last few months I have mentally struggled with the reality that my body might be keeping my child alive. I feel burdened by this thought, not just because it’s a horrifying concept, but because I am so desperately weary from it all. The calories she receives through breastfeeding are enough to keep her at a decent weight, but the price is high for my mental health. My breasts are connected to me, and she is often connected to my breasts. We are two beating hearts operating like a single unit, and that’s a beautiful thought in the short-term, but it’s become a burden I no longer want to carry.

I sometimes dream about weaning her. I wonder what it would be like to be free. We’ve tried bottles and a variety of milks and formulas, but nothing seems to appeal to her — not in the way nursing does. I’m afraid to deny her milk would mean a dip in my supply, and what happens if her health suffers because of it? It’s an impossible situation, and I continue to face the choice between myself and my child. Of course, I’m her mother, and I will choose my child a million times over. I do, every time she pulls my shirt down, and a tear slides down my cheek.

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Defeat and triumph mixed together, because she’s feeding, but it feels like with each feed I’m losing sight of me.

Next month, Eloise has a three-hour appointment at McMaster Children’s Hospital. We’ll meet with a team of doctors and specialists who will look at her feeding, swallowing and nutrition. The appointment has been on our calendar for many months, and as it draws nearer, my hope rises, my expectation high that we will finally solve this feeding puzzle. It’s this appointment that keeps me motivated, drawing nearer to a conclusion to this nightmare.

I want my daughter, my sweet, energetic, buoyant and bright little girl, to finally enjoy the full health that she deserves. On lonely nights I can forget that my aching breasts and bruised spirit are a byproduct of the biggest question in my life right now: Why won’t Eloise eat?

Article Author Brianna Bell
Brianna Bell

Read more from Brianna here.

Brianna Bell is a writer and journalist based in Guelph, Ontario. She has written for many online and print publications, including Scary Mommy, The Penny Hoarder, and The Globe and Mail.

Brianna's budget-savvy ways have attracted media attention and led to newspaper coverage in The Globe and Mail and The Guelph Mercury.

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