All of us are more or less creatures of habit, with bodies that work best if their long-accustomed habits are respected. Suddenly change the time when you go to bed or have your lunch (holidays in faraway places often do this) and your body will soon tell you that it does not altogether approve. What applies to adults also applies to children. But in their case, habits tend to change spontaneously as maturation occurs. Unless you realise this, all sorts of anxieties unnecessarily complicate child-rearing, as the following questions show.
All my four-year-old will eat these days is bacon and baked beans. Ever since he was tiny he has been a faddy eater, and because of this I’ve spent hours trying to tempt him with good, nourishing food. But it’s been quite useless and now, unless I give in and let him have his wretched beans and bacon, he will hardly eat anything. My husband says it’s my fault and that I’ve spoilt him. Maybe he’s right, but I’m worried stiff that my son’s diet is unbalanced and that he’ll get ill.
A Food fads and strange eating habits are so common in children that they could be considered normal. Often such habits are contagious. I’ve come across young sisters aping an elder brother in this way and going on a diet of sausages or fish fingers for months on end. Not infrequently strange food habits are learnt in the same sort of way at nursery school or at play groups. When mothers consult me on these problems I say, “Just let him get on with it.”
There are two excellent reasons for this First of all, I have never come across any child running into any serious medical problems because of faddy eating habits. Somehow, the body compensates while on a restricted diet, and (perhaps subconsciously) mothers tend to forget that from time to time their child or toddler picks at other foods. Just as a dog will occasionally nibble at grass (maybe to supplement his vitamin intake), so will a child pick at whatever nature dictates.
The second reason for taking a philosophical attitude to strange eating habits is because you honestly can’t do anything about it. Some parents engage in endless battles that can only end in defeat, for it doesn’t matter what you do to a child, you can’t force him to eat.
Food fads and difficult eating habits in children are best dealt with by simple and casual indifference, so I suggest you keep up the beans and bacon. As it happens, such a diet is very nutritious. And on no account show you are worried, upset or even hurt by the rejection of your nicely cooked and varied diet. Just enjoy your food with your husband, and, sooner or later, “Can I have a piece of yours, Mummy—just to taste ?” will be heard at your dinner table. In most cases that ends the bad eating phase for good and all.
We’ve got a problem with both our children on how to get your teeth white. Peter is just five and his sister Kate is three. Until the light evenings started this year we had no trouble with them sleeping at all, but suddenly Kate started coming downstairs and looking around the corner of the door while we were having supper. At first I ignored it and put it down to its being light outside, and simply took her up to bed again.
Unfortunately, Peter has started the same game. I expect he heard us talking to Kate and thought he was missing out on something. Eventually I had to get cross and we had several scenes. What happened next was that instead of going to sleep, both of them were opening their curtains and playing or reading. Often, I would go upstairs and find one of them awake at 10 o’clock. The same thing would happen in the mornings, and at four and five in the morning we would hear them laughing and talking. Peter looks dog-tired sometimes and he has started school. Kate does not seem to be affected. What should I do? Would a sleeping sedative help?
A I am firmly against sleep medication for children. It is possible to “knock them out” in this chemical way, but the sleep is unnatural and, to be effective, dosage has to be relentlessly increased. Once again —as with bad eating habits—the best thing to do is stop worrying and accept the status quo. Get your doctor to look at Peter, for sometimes when children look tired, what really is happening is that a respiratory infection is temporarily pulling them down. Tonsils rather than insomnia could be the cause of Peter’s washed-out appearance.
Contrary to what you may think I’ve often found it a good idea to make changes about bedtime when there are sleep problems. If the children sleep in different rooms, try them together for a while. If bedtime has been a strict six o’clock regime, try postponing it till 7.30. Experiment with teatime TV viewing—not with an idea of stopping TV “if you don’t go to sleep”, but rather to see whether or not TV before bedtime affects an easy transition into natural sleep as soon as the head touches the pillow.
However, always cling to the maxim “no condition is permanent” with sleep problems. Once again, I have never come across a child becoming sick due to lack of sleep, and, although restless kids can be a hassle for parents, a philosophical approach pays handsome dividends. Remember that in some countries children virtually keep the same hours as their parents.