Blue Poop: On Early Childhood Nutrition

Blue poop yesterday, blue poop today. And there’s probably going to be blue poop tomorrow.

Keeping a baby fed is quite the ordeal.

The drama started the day he was born. Unexpectedly premature, he was moved into the NICU while my wife recovered on the other side of the hospital from a double surgery. Babies don’t eat much for the first day of their life, but after that, it becomes the most crucial thing in the world to make sure they get fed.

My first food-related conflict started with a team of specialists on their daily tour of the NICU. All but demanding to put a nasogastric feeding tube into a newborn that hadn’t had the opportunity to try and eat anything yet, they were more than shocked to be told “no”. It angered the doctor, but amused the residents. It also ticked-off the aged nurse who demanded to know if I would be capable of attending to his feedings every two hours around the clock. She seemed to think I wasn’t up for it.

Between baby-feedings and tending to my wife on the other side of the hospital, I didn’t sleep for the next four days. Turns out he ate just fine without having food pumped directly into his stomach. This was my first hint that perhaps expert advice in the area of baby-feeding should be taken with a grain of … salt.

When More (Information) Is Less

He never did learn to nurse, but he was fed a steady diet of breast milk for the first six months from a bottle.  By the way, it should be law that new parents, moms in particular, are forbidden from accessing the internet. Two reasons: 1) every burp, burble, hiccup, fart, bruise, scratch, long nap, short nap, and runny nose becomes an internet research odyssey to discover the ultimate cause of the malady and what can be done to make sure that it never, ever happens again, and; 2) new moms are VICIOUS with each other over the internet.

Have a look through a new-mommy online forum:

“You’re having trouble producing breast milk and decided to give the baby formula? Whatever. Breast milk increases IQ. But you don’t breast feed.  Your baby might achieve just enough IQ points to attend public school someday. Might…”

. . .

 

“You breast feed just fine? Good for you! Oh, your baby isn’t sleeping? You do eat organic, don’t you? You don’t? Hello! Red dye #5 causes hyperactivity. Oh well, the world needs ditch-diggers too. I guess not everyone can go to college…”

. . .

“Your baby doesn’t suckle. Well aware of the benefits of breast milk, you decided to pump. That’s fine. You just do what you have to do. Everything will work out. Your baby won’t love you as much and will face a lifetime of abandonment issues because nothing can replace the mother-child bond formed while breastfeeding. Hitler’s mom pumped…”

. . .

“You eat organic and breast feed exclusively. You even take the little tyke to yoga. And the jogging stroller? So cute! What do you mean he isn’t gaining weight? Well, of course breast milk has fewer calories than formula. You know he won’t fully develop unless he gains weight, don’t you? I think it’s called ‘failure to thrive’. It can happen for all sorts of reasons, but I wouldn’t worry about. They all boil down to you being a terrible mom.”

. . .

“TTYL!”[1]

The game is rigged and, unless you’re a very lucky gal, you can’t win.

Recommendations vs Reality Part I

Let’s ignore most of the variables and deal with just one question: to breastfeed or not to breastfeed. Have a look at the opening paragraph from the Public Health Agency of Canada on the subject of breastfeeding:

Today, most women are breastfeeding their babies. Breast milk is the best food you can offer your baby … [I]t should be the only food or drink for the first 6 months of life and after that, breastfeeding should continue for up to 2 years … Breast milk is naturally and uniquely produced by each mother for her own baby. As your baby grows your milk will change to meet your baby’s needs and is the easiest milk of all for your baby to digest. Breast milk has just the right amount of protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins and minerals, and contains antibodies and other immune factors that help protect against infections and disease – protection that can last a lifetime. Breastfeeding is important for mothers’ health too and nurtures a special relationship between mother and baby. (emphasis mine)[2]

All of this is true. It is now an accepted medical fact that breast milk is the ideal thing to give your new baby, and I take no issue with the science. But now consider the above paragraph from the perspective of a woman who:

  • Has ever had a breast reduction or lumpectomy
  • Suffers from postpartum exhaustion, anxiety, or depression
  • Is healing from postpartum surgery
  • Is taking important medication that is contraindicated for lactation
  • Or is simply one of the approximately 2% of women who can’t produce enough milk[3]

All of these are common reasons why a mother might not be able to breastfeed. All of them are medical or biological reasons, which means we haven’t even begun to take account of the limitless variety of social, economic, or family reasons why breastfeeding may not be possible. Imagine yourself as a new mom who can’t breastfeed. Now go back and re-read the quoted paragraph again. Actually do it. … Done? Ok, now tell me how you think you’d feel if it really was you. It isn’t hard to understand the intense pressure, the overwhelming guilt, or the self-criticism that flows through a new mom’s head when she finds out that the whole ‘booby/baby’ thing isn’t going to happen just the way she imagined it would.

Open Wide!

As I said, my little guy was fed pumped breast milk for the first six months. Unfortunately, that kind of system is easily preyed-upon by the Fates, and he had to be switched to formula. Now, not being as well-versed in the ins and outs of baby feeding as I might have been, his first ‘solid’ food was “#9 Dark Maple Syrup” on the end of his pacifier. Upon proudly informing my wife of this new development, I was advised (rather strongly) that maple syrup was not an appropriate food item for a four-week old. My bad.

He hated it, anyhow.

Fast-forward to about the eight month mark, and the ‘baby-led weaning’ could begin. I was given the choice as to what he would eat for his first real meal, and chose barbecued steak, well-done despite my protestations. It was cooked, photographed, cubed, and liquefied into a fine porridge-like consistency, and fed to him by spoon. If possible, this went over even worse than the maple syrup.

There is, perhaps, less controversy regarding a child’s first forays into solid food than with a baby’s early liquid diet. If they’ll eat it, and it’s not obviously toxic, it’s pretty much OK. As new parents, you start to get the impression that you’re finally ‘out of the woods’ and that your child might actually have a better-than-even chance of surviving to adulthood, despite your jaw-dropping incompetence. But, predictably, you’d be wrong.

All manner of conflicting information and gnawing self-doubt continues to plague you. In my case, my little tyke was a bit on the small side: 5th percentile for height and weight. Now there’s nothing wrong with that, per se. Every human on earth is in the 5th percentile on some metric or other. But through a combination of poorly-worded pediatric advice and the collective paranoia of legions of internet parents, you become convinced that your tiny little darling is destined to be cast as the lead in the upcoming remake of Willow circa 2046.

Which brings me back to ‘baby-led weaning’. This is basically a system wherein you introduce solid, un-pureed food to your baby at regular meal times and allow the wee thing to pick and choose as he sees fit, gumming and slobbering all over the place to his little heart’s content. My wife and I chose this option because ‘parent-led weaning’, where the baby is denied liquid sustenance in place of the new and unfamiliar solid food, seemed a tad too Lord of the Flies for our taste. In any case, it is genuinely impossible to force a baby to eat what you want it to if the baby objects. All weaning is, ultimately, baby-led.

Lies, Fabrications, and Falsehoods or What to Tell the Baby Doctor

The introduction of solid food went slowly for us, and we were constantly told by the pediatrician (a dear man, exceedingly thin) that our little fellow was eating too little food and drinking too much milk. There is some accursed chart on which is posted the daily quotas for milk and solids consumption for all of the world’s homogenous horde of children, but despite our best efforts at early literacy, our tiny human never did get around to reading it. The insistence of the good doctor was fervent enough that my wife had to stop attending these appointments. As she saw it, it was inappropriate for her to lie to the doctor, and she couldn’t bring herself to tell the truth, so she decided to absent herself so as to not be directly incriminated by my mild fabrications.

But, as I had long suspected, my falsehoods finally caught up with reality and the wee bairn finally started eating full and regular meals, which coincided with a rapid decrease in his formula consumption and a steady rise in his rate of growth.

Not unlike the feeding-tube debate, things worked themselves out naturally. It wasn’t how the doctor envisioned, but it was a better outcome. Rather than cut the boy’s milk to half-rations and try to force-feed him whatever we could, we just kept up with trying to introduce regular foods. I have yet to hear of anybody’s kid attending grade one with Gerber baby cereal in their lunch box.

Goldfish Guilt

At this point you might get the impression that, provided your child isn’t on the small-side, you’re free and clear. Nice try! Our family’s very close friends have a little boy who, for no apparent reason whatsoever, ended up in the 105th percentile for height and weight. If anything, this occurrence was far more dire than our circumstances. This little fellow was not fat, nor was his sister, nor were either of his parents. He didn’t eat more than one might expect, nor was he lethargic or food-crazed. He was just … big.

If adults don’t take kindly to calorie-counting, two-year olds like it even less.

Nevertheless, under pressure from various doctors, he was subjected to all manner of tests and evaluations to discover the elusive underlying cause of this condition. His parents lost whole nights of sleep to online research and persistent worry. The greatest medical minds put their heads together and finally came up with the answer: the little boy in question was … (wait for it) … just slightly larger than is usual for other, equally normal boys his age.

Of course, when you’re finally ready to accept that your precious offspring is perfectly fine and eating normally, the guilt and shame surrounding food persists. One final example: a wonderful couple we have been friends with for some time have twin boys about the age of one and a half. While on a family outing, my wife chanced to ask what the boys were eating for their afternoon snack. Their mother informed her that the boys would be eating cheese and pitted cherries. Then, in a voice that would not have been out of place if she had finally admitted to lacing their milk with Navy rum to ensure timely naps and a quiet ride home, she added “and … goldfish crackers”. And so one of the finest and most devoted mothers I have ever met finally confessed her deepest secret: that she was feeding her children crackers which are the go-to preference for almost every child I have ever met. Even for the ones who don’t know it yet.

Recommendations vs Reality Part II

Once again, let’s survey the information that’s out there. Here’s BabyCenter.com with their “Age-by-Age Guide to Feeding Your Toddler” reviewed (of course!) by their ‘Medical Advisory Board’.

How much per day [ages 12-24 months]

2 cups dairy (1 cup milk or yogurt, 1 cup = 1 1/2 ounces natural cheese or 2 ounces processed cheese)

3 ounces grains, preferably half of them whole grains (1 ounce = 1/3 cup cold cereal, 1/4 cup pasta or rice, 1 slice bread)

1 cup fruit (fresh, frozen, canned and/or 100 percent juice) Emphasize whole fruits rather than juice.

1 cup vegetables (Serve vegetables that are cut in small pieces and well-cooked to prevent choking.)

2 ounces protein (1 ounce = one slice of sandwich meat, about 1/3 of a chicken breast half, 1/4 can of tuna, 1/4 cup cooked dry beans, or 1 egg)[4]

If any parents out there are reading this and honestly believe that their little darling eats like this every day, please contact me so I can give you an award and personally encourage you to submit your progeny for genetic testing so the scientific community can learn how you’ve managed to create a perfect uber-baby destined only for the highest-heights of greatness. Seriously? Give me a break! I mean, I’m sure that this is fine advice. I’m not a nutritionist, and I don’t sit on anybody’s ‘Medical Advisory Board’, but this advice is so far removed from my experience, and the experiences of every other parent I know, that I’m not even sure where to begin.

I was at a birthday party for a one-year-old a few weeks ago and listened to a mother on one side of me talk about how her child had refused to eat any form of protein (neither meat nor vegetable) for over a week. Simultaneously, I watched a two-year-old to my left inhale (inhale!) two large pieces of pizza. His mom was thrilled that he was eating at all. Turns out that he’d eaten almost nothing for the last three days. And I’d bet you my next paycheck that every kid in the room that day had a penchant for goldfish crackers.

The Wrap-Up

So why did I title this essay “Blue Poop”? Because my son has eaten a pint-and-a-half of blueberries in the last two days. And there’s still another half-pint to go. This has had certain (not altogether unpredictable) consequences, hence the title. Is that amount of blueberries too many? Yes. Is he getting too much sugar? Probably. Is it making diaper changes more interesting than they need to be? Oooh yeah. But you know what? I’m not too fussed about it. He doesn’t do this every day. The blueberry supply in Alberta in January is inherently limited. And so is my bank account (the blueberries cost me nine bucks!).

I’m not saying to feed your kid whatever is easiest or convenient. Nor am I advocating laissez-faire parenting where anything goes. What I am saying is that way too much ink is spilled, too many careless words spoken, and entirely too much expert opinion expressed for good parents everywhere to get on with doing their damned jobs by raising healthy, happy, and well-adjusted children. Parenting is a tough job and good parents need to make hard choices to ensure the best for their kids. And they do.

But I just don’t buy the line that every parenting decision I make has life-or-death consequences that will reverberate throughout my child’s entire lifetime. And for the most part, I’ve decided that I’m totally uninterested in anyone else’s opinion. Furthermore, apart from a select group of people that I love and trust, I don’t crave anybody’s approval. Today my boy wants blueberries. And I’m of a mind to give them to him.

[1] These are what I’d call ‘composite quotes’ from a variety of sources. They aren’t word for word, but they sure as heck aren’t far off. And they definitely capture the essence of the dialogue that’s out there. For best effect, they should be read in the snarky tones of a slighted teenaged girl suffering from mild megalomania.

[2] “Breastfeeding & Infant Nutrition,” Public Health Agency of Canada, accessed March 14, 2015, http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/hp-ps/dca-dea/stages-etapes/childhood-enfance_0-2/nutrition/index-eng.php.

[3] Laura Stanley, “The Breastfeeding Police,” Parenting, accessed March 15, 2015, http://www.parenting.com/article/the-breastfeeding-police.

[4] “Age-by-age guide to feeding your toddler,” Baby Center, accessed March 14, 2015, http://www.babycenter.com/0_age-by-age-guide-to-feeding-your-toddler_1736045.bc.

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