“But what if it doesn’t work?” Coping with the Fear of a Failed Wean

When starting a wean, there are so many questions. One of the recurring fears that I discuss with parents is: What if this doesn’t work, where do we go from here?

When tackling this answer, it’s really important to back up a step and to start with another question: How do we define success and “working”?

An equally important step is to identify and understand our own emotions when this worry comes up and how to work through them. Because that thought is going to come up again: it is normal, even after we talk about it and have some reassurance. So let’s go through these steps one at a time.

Defining success is an important aspect of this process. We seek to build safety and trust through providing an environment where a child can explore and develop their relationship with food. In the end, I see success in providing positive experiences around food that build the essential foundation for a healthy future and competence with oral eating. But it can be difficult to focus on this daily goal, rather than an end goal of complete oral eating. Every child is different and needs to be respected while moving at their own pace. This could be fast or slow, but it’s their pace. On the one hand, if a wean needs to be put on hold, it really is okay. But on the other, we sometimes need to stay the course, allowing for some struggle while figuring things out, so we can move to the next step. Children develop and learn everyday, what works today sometimes doesn’t work tomorrow, and vice versa. No one can “make” a child eat or guarantee they will eat orally by a certain time. However, it is within our ability to create a calm and safe atmosphere during mealtimes that allows for positive development, which is our TRUE success. Sometimes we just need to wait as brain wiring and muscle memory is built, much like we give space and time for other developmental stages.

It can be very difficult to be in a moment when it feels like the wean is not going well. In this space, we may need to practice mindfulness and acceptance. Once a parent has done all that can be done, such as offering food, the next step is to just “be”. But not doing anything in this moment to try to fix it can be hard! But also completely necessary! This is where it is important to check-in with our own emotions and at times temper the automatic movements, such as to offer another type of food or watch every morsel your little one is taking in (or not, as the case may be). There are several ways to do this.

One is to do a “body scan,” which is basically an internal check-in on your physical state from your head to your toes. Take note of any tightness, tension, or unusual sensations. For instance, if I were to do this in a stressful situation, I would likely notice that my jaw is tight and a tingle between my shoulder blades. This is an indication for me that its time to relax my jaw and tongue, and take a mental step back from what’s going on so I can observe and be aware. Taking a deep breath *should* cause your lower ribs to move and therefore change how your abdomen feels as the breath rises and falls. If you feel stressed and a little nauseous, or numb and not hungry, that may be a common feeling between you and your child.

Check-in with your thoughts, and if thoughts have become obsessive around eating and volume, take a step back and introduce a new intention or focus. It is okay to feel stressed, and it is okay for kids to see their parents experience emotion. This provides an excellent opportunity for adults to demonstrate how to regulate and engage with upset emotions in a healthy way, rather than bottling up or exploding. We need to remember that even if your child is not eating today, the exposure and experiences they have are important and build within their muscle memory. It is the small everyday experiences that form who we are, how we understand our selves and our relationship to the world. Let’s make those positive experiences by creating safety, respect, a sense of belonging and being seen, just as we are, in the present moment. Going back to the theory of the Division of Responsibility, it is a success when a child’s cues are respected. Tolerating the feelings and worries that come up is difficult, but can be done.

Ultimately, though, if the worries and stress feel overwhelming and unmanageable, it is possible that past trauma has been triggered. Post-traumatic stress can charge a current situation, overlaying our present stress with a heightened response fueled by past experiences. In this case it may be beneficial to talk with me, or a local professional, about processing trauma so that we can address the core intensity of the response, in addition to discussing coping skills for the triggers. Ultimately, we are wired for adaptive health and healing is possible, and GIE is here to support you in this journey.

Mary Borgman, MSW, LICSW, Mental Health Social Worker