We introduced Charlotte to solids at the age of 6 months (3 months adjusted). I was hesitant to say the least. I did not believe she was ready. She was only three months old and just starting to be able to hold up her own body weight. The pressure for adequate weight gain was an ever present threat in our daily life. Back and forth between home, hospital and specialists had us counting every single calorie that she consumed. It was never good enough, I could never enjoy a meal or bottle without a little voice in the back of my mind saying ‘this isn’t enough, it’s not good enough, you need to have more, they say you need more’. A year of this special kind of torture and pressure on Charlotte and us has us now sitting with a child who, understandably, sees very little enjoyment in food. Food is THE source of displeasure, pain, discomfort and all round misery. With our visit to Johannesburg we now know that this issue has been extremely exacerbated as well by physical issues that she has with a lack of skills in how to correctly chew, suck or swallow her food.
Premature babies are little miracles. They defy the odds of survival, they are born fighters and perform little acts of miracles on a regular basis. The expectations placed on their little bodies however is unfathomable.
In South Africa around 80% of newborns weigh between 2.5kg to 4.25kg at birth, providing they are healthy, full term tots. By a year old a baby born, weighing 3.5kg, will have likely gained approximately 10kg, over and above their birth weight, dependent on a few variables. Remember, this is variable, there are so many factors at play.
A premature and micro-premature baby is expected to play ‘catch-up’ in their first year of life. They are expected to by the end of year one, weigh almost as much as a full term child, when in fact they tend to follow their own growth curve. Dependant on their gestation when born, many are able to do so, but the reality is, that micro babies are in a massive deficit with birth weight and have a far more challenging scale to climb in their first year.
In Charlottes case she was born weighing 620g, and expected to have ‘caught up’ by a year old. In essence we were expecting her to out perform a full term child in eating abilties and calorie consumption, which is just ludacrous when one says it out loud. It’s just not possible for their tiny underdeveloped bodies to pull this off. Compound this pressure with a child who is ‘unwilling’ and you have a recipe for disaster for the entire family. The psychological trauma inflicted by these expectations on both the parents and the child is immeasurable.
We had laminated charts in the house. Every ml of formula consumed was charted, bottles were worked out according to how many calories were required every day for ‘adequate’ weight gain. Additives were added to bottles to increase calorie intake. Bottles were to be given every three hours, around the clock to ensure that she was getting enough in to ‘catch up’. She was never given the opportunity to self regulate or build a positive relationship to food. She was never given an opportunity to experience hunger and what skills were required to fulfill that hunger.
We did what we were told, trusting in methods that were promised to help her weight gain. What we didn’t realise and fully comprehend was the total devastation this cycle would cause on her psychological development and association with food. I know now. I know better. I know the devastating toll it has taken on my daughter, myself, my marriage and my life. I work daily to accept the damage inflicted by my own hands. I live with the guilt of knowing that I should have trusted my mothers instinct and sought intervention sooner. It changed me, so much more than even I can comprehend.
And so we begin afresh. A new journey of self discovery, both for Charlotte and for us, her parents. Each day we allow Charlotte to self regulate. For her to learn that food is no longer the enemy. That we will never again force anything in her system that she is unable or unwilling to process.
I’ll admit that this is not an easy task by any means. When you have become accustomed to a certain routine for a year it becomes hard to break habits. It is hard not to try and sit in the evening and tally up how many calories were consumed that day, how much you need to try and pump into her at night while she sleeps and dreamfeeds. Throwing away the laminated charts was hard. It felt like Stokholms syndrome. A vicious, twisted love affair with the source of all pain and evil.
I have no idea how many calories she consumes now. I weigh her once a week instead of daily. Instead I focus on her smile, that infectious little grin that only she can pull off. I focus on giving her as much love and reassurance as I can possibly dish out to someone so little. I encourage her to explore her world, to feel secure in the knowledge that I will always be there for her. I encourage her to explore food daily, with no pressure to touch it, let alone eat it. This process isn’t only a healing process for her, it is for me as well.
In place of calorie counting is food play, sensory play and food exploration. She and I need to build a new relationship surrounding food. It won’t happen overnight, even if I wish it did. I cannot expect a years worth of damage to be undone in one month.
But I can already start to see a difference. There is hope that we can undo most of the damage and rebuild trust. Does she have a healthy balanced diet? Not by any measure, but that will come with time and trust.
For now though I count our blessings that we were able to meet such an amazing team of women who had so much faith in Charlotte and her abilities. Their compassion and understanding towards the long term psychological effects that feeding Charlotte has created was not only reserved towards our daughter. They understood the trauma it inflicted on us, her parents. They understood the guilt that is associated with our trauma. As Charlottes parents we are bestowed with the responsiblity of keeping her safe and feeling secure. Knowing that I was the source of much of her stress has taken it’s toll on me, both physically and psychologically. I’m not the same person who brought her home from the hospital.
Along with healing Charlotte, her dad and I are healing, as individuals and as a couple. The toll that Charlottes feeding issues has taken, has had far reaching consequences that will require love and patience to heal.
That I am blessed with a husband and father to Charlotte who has had the patience of a saint is not missed on me. I only wish I was able to express my love for this man adequately. My brother too, stood by us through thick and thin, good times and bad. My aunt and my gran, and of course my extended family (you guys know who you are). It’s not been an easy road, I’ve had many not-so-proud moments and many more moments where I was downright ashamed of my behaviour. Times where I felt it would be better for everyone if I just disapeared one day. But through it all they stood by us and supported us, and continue to do so. Because Charlotte is worth it!
Just look at that smile! How can one not want to fight tooth and nail to nurture, love and protect her?!