The reason that we first became interested in probiotics generally and created HealthyGutBugs.com is because of the connection that we believe exists between picky eating and gut bugs, both healthy ones and bad ones. This is a very personal issue for our family. As I know that other families are struggling with and trying to find answers, solutions and even a way to make peace with extremely picky eaters, I thought I would share our journey with those who might be interested.
Back in 2004, our second son was born at a healthy weight – right at 50% on the weight charts. After a few challenges getting breast feeding going, our baby was nursing well.
At two weeks old, he developed a dangerous respiratory infection, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and was given a course of strong antibiotics and a nebulizer to deliver steroids and help with his breathing. After a few very scary days and nights including a few panicky moments, our son improved over a few days and we gladly put the health scare behind us – or so we thought at that time.
A few weeks after he got well, colic started. As a nursing mother, I tried to take foods out of my diet in the hopes that that might improve his discomfort, which he made obvious by crying incessantly. Eventually, our pediatrician prescribed liquid Zantac, which had a strong, minty flavor – clearly not an infant-friendly flavor formula. We squirted the liquid into his mouth, with a dropper as prescribed, for about six weeks, hoping that it would help. His crying did not improve and he clearly despised taking the medicine, turning his head away and closing his mouth when we came near with the dropper. So eventually we stopped giving it to him. There seemed no purpose in torturing him with the terrible tasting stuff (and we feared causing him to hate us) with no clear improvement in his symptoms.
When he was about four months old, my breast milk dried up unexpectedly. I hadn’t realized there was a problem with his feeding before then, even though he had slowly moved down the growth chart for weight percentages chart at his regular doctor visits. It was only then that I figured out that his five minutes feeding sessions did not mean that he was an incredibly efficient nurser, but rather that he was taking very little milk per feeding session, which is what eventually caused my milk supply to give out. Don’t know why I didn’t realize there was a problem before then….
After being forced putting him on formula, I began to realize the extent of his eating problem. It would take me a full 24 hours to get him to drink a total of 16 ounces of formula – with the recommended targets set for more like 24 – 36 ounces. At six months, he refused to transition to food. I could entice him to eat a few cheerios and a little vanilla yoghurt, but that was it. All prepared baby food was rejected. No rice cereal. No jars of mushy peas. No sweet potatoes. No nothing.
As this was our second son, and our first was an enthusiastic, flexible and varied eater, we were particularly un-ready and ill-equipped to know how to deal with this situation. Any smugness about our first son’s eating certainly was certainly coming back to haunt us. Paybacks.
As you might imagine, this was extremely stressful for us. We made frequent visits to the doctor’s office. His percentage on the weight chart continued to drop. They tested him for and ruled out all kinds of scary conditions such as Cystic Fibrosis and a brain tumor affecting his ability to swallow. After the most serious medical conditions were excluded, our pediatrician told us not to worry and implied that it was a personality issue and reassured us that he wouldn’t starve himself. Frankly, this advice did not provide much reassurance. When at twelve months he still was not eating solid food, he was only sipping at his formula and was diagnosed by his pediatrician as “failure-to-thrive”, a scary diagnosis often given to severely premature, ill or abused infants. I really lost it.
Finally, at just about the one-year mark, he started to eat a few kinds of food – Mac N Cheese, quesadillas, Brie cheese (sigh…), bagels with cream cheese, ice cream, Dino chicken nuggets, pasta with butter. You get the picture… I felt like such a failure as a mother that the only food I could get my sweet baby to eat, after a year of trying everything and watching him fall off the weight chart, was basically junk food. Our pediatrician tried to make me feel better about it and reminded us how far we had come with him.
Although he had officially “fallen off” the pediatric weight charts, the precipitous decline started to taper off, but he only gained 2 ounces between 18 months of age and 30 months of age. The varieties foods that he would allow himself to eat did not improve much at all, but at least he would eat peanut butter and had kept up the vanilla yoghurt.
We read books about problem eating and consulted specialists, all of whom advised us to stop worrying (ha ha), not to get into any fights with him about food (lest we create an eating disorder) and to keep introducing new foods. Although I believe that all of that was very good advice, it did nothing to improve the nature and extent of foods that he would accept. When we broke down occasionally and forced him to try new foods, he would cry, gag and sometimes vomit. Eventually, we just accepted the status quo and stopped trying new foods with him. But I still worried and carried around a lot of guilt.
I believed at that time that the spicy Zantac we had squirted down his throat for the colic must have caused a psychological aversion to eating. I was also the recipient of a lot of well-meaning but ultimately unhelpful advice from fellow parents. Yes, I felt judged about my son’s abysmal eating and I felt like a failure as a mother. The pasta with butter, Mac N Cheese and chicken nuggets continued unabated.
When he was 5 years old, our family moved from California to Singapore. Not knowing what to expect, we brought boxes full of Kraft mac ‘n cheese, and about 30 bags of a certain kind of pasta he liked from Trader Joes. By then, we knew how to manage things somewhat, but every meal continued to be a drama of one sort or another.
Within a few months of being in Singapore, I found a new Singaporean pediatrician with about 30 years of experience. During one of the first appointments, I shooed the kids out of the room, so I could tell the doctor our story. He asked me if I’d ever tried probiotics and said that there was some compelling evidence that they could sometimes increase appetite in kids with extreme food pickiness. I declined to purchase the probiotics he prescribed when I found out they were $90 and vowed to find some less expensive ones elsewhere. Then I promptly forgot all about it. Frankly, I’d gotten so much advice over the years that hadn’t proved effective that his advice didn’t really register with me.
About a year and a half later, my husband forwarded an article to me that he was reading (can’t find it anymore but it might have been this one) in the paper that said that there was some interesting research around probiotics and extremely picky eating. That reminded me about our pediatrician’s earlier advice and I determined to start up the probiotics with our son.
I did some research to find out which particular species of bacteria had been found to be effective with picky eaters and then located a reputable brand of probiotics that contained all four strains. I had my husband buy them (JarroDophillus EPS by Jarrow Formulas) at Whole Foods when he had a business trip back in New York.
At first, he wouldn’t swallow the probiotic capsules. Too big. So, we broke open the capsules and stirred them into water where the powder really wouldn’t dissolve in any meaningful way. Later, we realized that the casing of the pill was important, as it meant that the bacteria inside would more likely to survive the hostile acids in the stomach, and make it to the lower intestines where they could colonize.
We also took the time to explain to him what was going on, and why we thought this might offer a rational explanation for why his reaction to food was so different than ours. This got him on board, and willing to soldier through the pill swallowing. It also, incidentally, may have helped create something of a placebo effect.
Well, a couple of weeks and hundreds of billions of bacteria later, our son’s eating started to improve. I promise you. Yes, I realize that it could just be a coincidence or it could be the placebo effect, but his eating has definitively improved in a meaningful way . And I believe the probiotics had something to do with it, given how significantly things started to change immediately after starting them.
It began with him eating larger quantities of the same foods he’d always liked. Then he started sniffing foods that he’d refused to eat in the past and saying, “Mmmmmm…..that smells good.” He even commented that the local Singaporean hawker stall food smelled good – this from a child who used to freak out with strong smells.
Then, when we’d ask him to try new foods, he would do it. Sometimes. And for the first time, he actually liked some of the new tastes that he tried. “That wasn’t terrible,” he’d say, which meant he’d eat it willingly next time. Although he still rejected many choices, he dramatically expanded his preferred diet. He started eating most kinds of meat, certain fruits (a crisp apple) and certain vegetables (cucumber). His aversions have weakened, but lifelong habits have been hard to break.
Our family anxiety level (including his) reduced dramatically. He no longer asks, “But what will I eat?” when we go to a friend’s house or a restaurant for a meal. The variety of his diet is still not remarkable, and he’ll occasionally throw up when trying certain new foods (broccoli in cheese sauce), but I think we’re in the realm of more normal eating now. I used to fear that we would never get to the point where we are now and I am so grateful. And he has grown and filled out quite a bit in the time since his eating has improved.
After about six months of his taking twice daily probiotics, I started to slack off on giving him the pills, hoping that perhaps he had either recolonized his gut with healthy bacteria or he had overcome a psychological food aversion, whichever had been causing the problem. Unfortunately, in my unscientific opinion, his eating regressed without the probiotics. So we started them again and we keep up the pills for now. (I’ve half considered a fecal transplant (another topic for another day) in hopes of making the healthy bacteria colonization more permanent in his gut.
After this experience, I started paying a lot more attention to what I read about probiotics and realized that these bacteria can really help with a wide variety of conditions and are an exciting new field of medical research into human health. I became very interested in following the latest research on probiotics and health. This is the reason that we started HealthyGutBugs.com.