Realistic Expectations: Food Issues

If you asked any child to name a basic human need, chances are the word “food” would be one of the first answers. It is essential to our well-being, isn’t it? And so naturally it is an issue that often comes front and center for children who have lived in an institution and who have possibly never known what it means to feel “full.” Parents frequently comment on adoption travel blogs with astonishment at how much their new children will eat, refilling their plates again and again at every meal. Just as many new parents, however, worry when their child won’t put any solids in her mouth or when they return to their new home and then find food hidden under their child’s bed. Today I’d like to discuss some of the reasons why food issues are often a very common part of international adoption.

I will never forget taking a group of older orphaned children out to a restaurant shortly after I started working in China. I sat there amazed as they ate every morsel, and we kept ordering more and more as it all disappeared once again. At one point, however, we realized that the kids were ordering food and then secretly putting it into their pockets for later. My excitement turned to sadness as it hit me that the kids were trying to protect themselves from the hunger they would feel the next day.

Of course, over the last nine years, I have seen true hunger again and again in orphanage settings. The diets of children in institutions are often meager, with rice congee being a staple and protein being scarce. Anemia and growth retardation are common in orphaned children. As a mom to teenage sons, some days I will watch them come home from school and pop an entire frozen pizza in the oven for a “snack,” and I realize how blessed my kids have been to have grown up with a full pantry. The reality is that countless children around the world know real, long-term hunger – to the point that their bodies basically give up on ever getting enough food.

Another reality of orphanages is that far too many babies are fed with propped bottles. When orphanages are short on hands, nannies will roll up a towel next to an infant in a crib and lay the bottle near her mouth. Sadly, more of the milk often goes down a child’s shirt than into her tummy.

Some doctors have theorized that babies who never eat to full have “hunger switches” (those receptors in your brain that tell you to stop eating) that don’t develop properly. Basically children who grow up with daily hunger often have difficulty knowing when to stop eating even after being adopted, and so it is common for new parents to report that their child will eat continually. Some physicians will tell new parents to not worry about a child who wants to eat all the time and to offer as much healthy food as possible to allow them to know you will always meet their needs. Other experts, however, remind parents that children from orphanages eat a very regimented diet and will advise parents on the adoption trip to add new foods slowly. Since I am not an expert on child nutrition, I am staying out of this debate. I do think it is important, however, for new parents to be aware that food is often a source of deep anxiety for international adoptees so they can help transition their child into the healthiest eating habits possible.

On the opposite side of the food issue spectrum are those children who develop oral aversions in an institutional setting. It is important to know that many orphanages don’t introduce solid foods until ages 1 to 2. Many nannies will put rice cereal into the children’s bottles and then cut a wider nipple opening so that they “drink” their meals. Since the kids never learn to actually chew, some children then cannot stand the feel of having solid foods in their mouths. They will immediately spit out anything offered to them, or else some children will store the food in their cheeks, often for hours at a time, in order to not feel it on their tongue. There is lots of good information online about oral aversion, and adoptive parents should educate themselves before travel so they can recognize potential signs in their child and get help once returning home.

Another common post-adoption issue is a fear in children that their newly found food supply might suddenly disappear. This might manifest itself in a mild way, such as a child feeling anxious until a cracker is given for both of her hands, or in a more complex way such as hoarding food. Parents need to realize that when children have grown up with meager nutrition, some kids feel a deep seated need to control their food once they meet their new family. I know it can be very concerning to a parent to find moldy bananas hidden in a child’s clothes hamper or to change a child’s bed sheets and find snacks under the mattress. I have had parents tell me their new child is “stealing” food, and some have even shared that they worry this means their child is naturally dishonest. Hoarding isn’t about honesty, however, but instead about a child’s insecurity and fear, which is understandable when one realizes they have lost everything they have known.

I vividly remember taking a snack of Kix cereal into an orphanage one day and watching helplessly as the kids fought and scratched each other to get at the bag that a child had snatched from my hands. It was a sobering few seconds as we tried to separate them to realize that the kids were in survival mode, willing to do anything to fill their tummies. Adoptive parents should educate themselves fully about the many issues surrounding food that children might face post-adoption and remember to ask themselves, “What could my child have lived through to cause this behavior?” While many of us might have felt hungry for a few hours or even an entire day, most of us have never experienced the continual desire or ache for food that many orphaned children have known.

We know many of our readers and supporters have experience in dealing with food issues with their children, and we invite you to share your stories with us!

~Amy Eldridge, Executive Director

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11 Comments to “Realistic Expectations: Food Issues”

  1. […] I know it can be very concerning to a parent to find moldy … … See the rest here: LWB Community » Realistic Expectations: Food Issues ← The best way to use probiotics for maximum … – Real Healthy Kids The Worst […]

  2. Jolene (Homespun Heritage) 21 May 2012 at 12:25 pm #

    This is not specific to just international adoption. Children from the U.S. can, also, have challenging backgrounds that involve feeding issues, hoarding, and anxiety about meal times. It is incredibly sad to witness and we are thankful to know that these children do heal (emotionally) and the vast majority learn self-regulation and are able to overcome their challenges. It takes a mighty amount of patience and a healthy amount of loving understanding from their new families!

  3. Mary 21 May 2012 at 12:33 pm #

    We brought our daughter home just shy of her 2nd birthday. She would not touch food with her hands and would wait to be fed with a spoon. As she was learning to feed herself, she would fastidiously pick up every last grain of rice or noodle that fell onto the table and put it back into her bowl. It made my heart ache.
    We always have kept a drawer of snacks that she was allowed at any time. Crackers, raisins, etc. Her drawer, her food. I think it helped. She’s 7 now and has outgrown her obvious food issues, but I’m sure there has been a lasting impact on her.

  4. Ruth 21 May 2012 at 6:18 pm #

    Also, it really helps to put yourself in the place of your child. What do they know as “food”? In other words, what you think of as good, right, appropriate foods may be unknown and, frankly, yucky. It really helps to find out as much as possible what your child is used to eating. And think how you felt in China; did everything you were served or saw look or taste yummy? Even the chicken feet? After awhile were you ready to go home and eat foods you were used to, foods that made you feel comfortable? It’s not that hard to give a new child the same feeling, as much as you can. A simple inexpensive rice cooker makes having rice available at every meal no trouble. Rice and bacon, eggs, fried peppers is a fine breakfast and not too far from others who may prefer their bit of bacon with French toast. It’s not that much more work to break apart meal fixings so a new child can pick what he’s used, maybe the rice and veggies and eventually some garlic chicken sausage from a spaghetti dinner meal. When we traveled for our first son (a toddler) in 2006 we saw so many new parents attempting to feed their kids what they considered a proper breakfast: bread, cereals, oatmeal, milk, etc. when eggs and congee, tofu and fruit sat unvisited in the breakfast bar. That son tried everything the first day, then decided that the white (and light brown) foods he was used to were the only safe ones. He didn’t know how to chew anything hard, so we started at the beginning, slowly, with that as well. But, even though he wanted no food except a few fruits that weren’t basically a good gruel, one of his first food words was “pepper.” It really does help to find out what a new child’s comfort foods are and try to offer these.

  5. Marcy 23 May 2012 at 7:18 am #

    What an insightful article. When my daughter was newly home at age 1, I was concerned because sometimes a piece of food would fall out of her mouth an hour or more after mealtime. I thought she had some type of reflux and was coughing food up. Then I realized that she was hoarding a few bites of food inside her cheeks at the end of each meal! After I figured that out, I was always careful check her cheeks before putting her down for a nap because I didn’t want her to fall asleep with food in her cheeks!

  6. Maria 24 May 2012 at 11:41 am #

    Our son has been home from China for almost 7 months, and has oral aversions from not receiving solid foods. We adopted him when he was 27 months old and he had only been bottle fed. We have made some progress with things like tooth brushing by making up games. I put toothpaste on his brush by accident once, though, and he refused to brush for a week.

    We cannot get any food that isn’t from a bottle into his mouth (except by force, which isn’t the way we’re going to go…). He will now put certain toys into his mouth, but he checks to make sure we haven’t smeared any food on them. Smart kid!

    It’s all about time, patience, and baby steps.

  7. […] Amy Eldridge, at Love Without Boundaries, has begun writing a series of posts entitled “Realistic Expectations” in an effort to better prepare all adoptive parents for the day they finally meet their long-anticipated little one. I’d consider these a must read for anyone in the process to adopt from China.New this week, Amy shares about expectations on food issues. […]

  8. Kayla 24 May 2012 at 8:39 pm #

    I have come to think of most adoptive children have a need to “retrain” what they know about food even those who have not necessarily been hungry. In an orphanage, food is handed out on a schedule. There may not be seconds. There are rarely special treats. When a meal is done, the food is put away and most often is out of sight completely. There are hardly any choices about what to eat or when you will eat it. So it means that newly home kids have to learn how to deal with food being available all the time, having special treats and the ability to eat seconds or thirds as well as food being present at most social functions, advertised on tv, etc. It’s learning that yes, there is food in the garbage but no, we don’t eat it. Yes, there is food in our cupboard but no we don’t just take it and hide it in our room because we are worried that if we don’t, we will not get any of it. My two don’t have major food issues but I have one who just has some pretty quirky food related behaviors. (Remembers events by foods that were served and has a bit of a food radar where she likes to know if there will be food and what it will be.)

  9. […] Today I read this article:   www.lwbcommunity.org/realistic-expectations-food-issues […]

  10. Kathy 30 May 2012 at 7:45 pm #

    When we adopted our almost-four-year-old daughter last year, she was still on baby formula in baby bottles. She could gulp down a bottle in 1-2 minutes flat. As a result, she was averse to anything else in her mouth. It has taken over a year of feeding therapy; but she can now eat most “normal” foods, actually chewing and swallowing. But it has been extremely hard for her to make this change. She will still wince and push on her cheeks with her fists at times, when the challenge gets to be too much for her.

  11. […] Read the rest of this article here! […]


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