Why Three Bites of Baby Food Changed My Life

baby food
Image via Rachel Engel

Here in the United States, and in most countries around the world, food plays a dominant role in our gatherings. Even leaving out major holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, food defines many of our activities.

Having friends over to watch the big game? Wings, chips and dip, nachos– those are “sports gathering” food.

Planning a baby shower? Sherbet and Sprite punch, dinner mints, and individual sandwiches are usually served.

On birthdays we eat cake. On the Fourth of July we eat hot dogs and hamburgers. We have Taco Tuesday nights with friends, and you can get half price off your pizza if your hometown baseball team scored seven or more runs in their last game. Many parents will even recommend M&Ms as an effective treat to entice toddlers to potty train. 

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Food is not just something we eat to live. It defines a lot of our activities; heck, even eating certain foods can trigger nostalgia to hit you like a ton of bricks. Suddenly, you're back in your grandmother's kitchen eating salmon croquettes for the first time. 

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When they told us my son had failed his swallow study–where a speech pathologist adds barium to formula or baby food, and an X-ray can show what happens as the child swallows– and would need to be 100% fed through a tube in his stomach, all of those food-centric things ran through my mind.

Would he never blow out his candles and eat a birthday cake? Would he never sit in the backyard and suck the pits out of cherries? Would he never experience my grandmother's cooking that I have lovingly tried to carry on? No one had the answer.

So, we resolved to practice. After he was discharged from the NICU at three months old, we worked with our local speech therapist and let him taste things. At first, he was only allowed dipped pacifiers. Then, we moved to letting him put empty spoons in his mouth. Then we moved on to thickened purees, giving him the tiniest bites we could manage to get on a spoon. After three months of work, we took him back for a repeat swallow study … which they said he once again failed.

We were crushed. Positively heartbroken. We had been so optimistic. The write-up of his test even made it sound like we should just give up, and that he would probably never eat, which broke us even more, and bewildered his therapists. Everyone thought he was doing so well, and that he had surely made progress. We kept trying, kept working on things, even though the report hadn't given us a lot of hope, and even though we weren't technically supposed to be feeding him still. How do you get better at swallowing if you don't practice, though?

Six months later, we were back in the swallow study room, with our now 1-year-old looking around confused, and a little scared. He had recently been taking larger bites of food, sometimes eating 10-15 bites during a feeding. We tried not get too excited for the test, though, because our personal observation meant nothing. It was all about what our baby boy could do in that moment. 

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The radiologist indicated he was ready, and the chaos began. I needed my son to look straight at me while he swallowed so his throat would be in the right position for the x-ray to capture the journey of his swallow. Now, try getting a scared baby to perform exactly like you want in a weird, cold hospital lab: I'd rather try nailing jello to a wall. He spent much of his time crying and looking around until I thrust my phone into the therapist's hand and said, “Here, hold Mickey up for him to watch!”

And that's how, with my son mesmerized by Mickey Mouse Clubhouse playing on my iPhone (thank you, Amazon Instant Video!), his life changed forever. We were able to get three toddler-sized bites into his mouth, and the radiologist said, “He looks great, those bites are all going down safely, with him protecting his airways.”

We finished up the test, cleaned up the boy, and then met with the speech pathologist who gave us instructions on working with thinner consistencies since he still showed slight signs of aspiration with those. Then, I clicked my son in his stroller, and walked out of the hospital with my mom by my side, who was holding my daughter's hand. Once we got the kids in the car and were sitting in our seats up front, we looked at each other, and then burst into tears. We were crying, shaking; it was unbelievable. He could eat! They told us he could eat! It's poetic, as this happened just a few days shy of his 1-year mark of having his feeding tube surgically placed. 

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I called my husband who was at work two hours away, and he could barely understand me through my happy tears. He was just as ecstatic, and I know he felt the same giant weight lifted off his shoulders as I did.

After we finally calmed down, my mom and I drove to a restaurant, and for the first time, we ordered my son food: his own cup of applesauce. I'm sure the waiter thought we were insane when the tears started again.

Three bites changed our lives, changed the future, and brought me to tears.

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Why Three Bites of Baby Food Changed My Life

Rachel is a stay-at-home-mom to her 4-year-old daughter, Sydney, and her 18-month-old son, Jackson. Her writing can be found all over the web, mostly detailing her own parenting struggles and triumphs, as well as her life as the military spouse of an active-duty airman. She also writes about her life as as a special needs parent on her blog, Tales From the Plastic Crib, and spends an unnecessary amount of time on Twitter. ... More

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