A safe eating dynamic is one in which no one feels pressured, neither caregivers nor kids. There is room to explore food, to enjoy it, to be heard and respected when you say "no thanks" and when you say "yes, please." In a safe dynamic, your eating is not the focus of people’s attention, and no one is trying to impose any agenda beyond having a relaxed meal.
For tube-fed and weaning kids, the world of food is brand new and everything can feel foreign, needing to be approached with caution -- especially when there has been a history of oral trauma (nausea, vomiting, suctioning, intubation, surgery, unsafe swallow, etc.). Making the feeding experience SAFE is what allows kids to build trust and confidence, and with trust and confidence eating skills can develop and grow! Conversely, when eating does not feel safe, kids go into fight or flight mode, experience stress, and cannot learn about food.
What to do, though, when you are a parent or caregiver and all of that stress and pressure is in your head? When every meal feels like both a chance at progress and a shattered hope? When you have been told there are minimums or foods that "must" be taken?
In my mind, there are two approaches available for those of us seeking to create joyful, pressure- free, and trusting mealtimes for our kiddos – for those of us who can ignore our children’s eating and for those of us who have a tough time doing so.
I call the first approach "Cheers! We're just hanging out!" If you are able to look at your child as an eating companion, free to make his or her own decisions about eating, you can create mealtimes as a space in your busy day to just be together. Tell stories, sing songs, talk about the meal, how you made it. Describe the smells and tastes that YOU notice. Invite your young person to share in your experience: have them on your lap, offer a lick of food on your fingertip or silverware, have them help with serving, or let them feed you.
Invitation means that you open the door, but do nothing afterwards. We don’t talk about their food, suggest bites, clap or cheer or use technology to distract from eating. Safety is created by companionship and zero pressure. If your child says "yes" to a food interaction, you assist only to where absolutely needed (handing a food, supporting a cup, etc.). If a child says "no" or is not interested, you react by acknowledging that you understand, it’s no problem, and you continue your own meal.
This environment fosters wonderful relational opportunities – the freedom to talk with and enjoy one another. But for some of us, "not caring" about whether our child eats or drinks is just an impossible task. For that reason, I call Safe Space Option #2, "I'll be over here now, doing my own thing!"
As parents or caregivers, we have all been through traumatic experiences with our kiddos. Or, we have medical team members that are highly numbers focused. We pay a lot of attention to each bite, looking at whether they are swallowing safely. We intervene and help and ask and offer. But all of those behaviors get in the way of a new eater’s sense of trust and control, with the result of typically zero progress or even setbacks. Not to mention, tons of stress!
In these cases, creating a safe feeding dynamic can mean removing ourselves from the mealtime experience. We can become that warm and respectful server at a fancy restaurant: "Madam/sir, here is the chef’s choice for today. If you need anything, simply let us know." And then, we disappear! And it’s just you and the dish.
The same goes for kids who have a hard time eating around other people, and for adults who have a hard time letting go and ignoring our kiddos: Present the food, give them a kiss, and take yourself somewhere else. Whether that’s the kitchen (because there are always dishes to be done…), or the couch with a cup of coffee or tea. Going away means that your child has been invited to a mealtime, but there is no agenda and no interference. And if you were to take a secret peek at how these children react to being alone, you would find that they typically start to experiment. They will cautiously touch or taste, taking things as slowly as they need to, guided just by their own sense of safety and curiosity.
So whichever method you choose – the "Cheers!" or the "See ya later!" – we hope that mealtimes become warm and safe spaces for your whole family!
Olga Owens, JD, Lead Parent Coach