Trusting your child’s gut

Photo Credit: Marina K Caprara via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Marina K Caprara via Compfight cc

By Maria Sorbara Mora, MS, CEDRD, PRYT, RYT

My friend and colleague Joe Kelly recounted a story to me one day about his children. He told me that when his kids started school he noticed that both children complained about their stomachs hurting constantly. After ruling out illness and allergies he sat them down and asked them what they noticed when they would get stomach aches. His children told him that their stomach’s started to hurt before going to school and would feel better when they got home. He realized that his kids were not comfortable in the school system and were having a body reaction. His neighbors were home schooling their children and he decided to do the same. He was faced with others telling him it was a bad idea, that children whom are home schooled lack social skills and that the children would eventually adapt to their environment if he kept taking them to school. Joe did something really, really smart. He trusted his children’s guts and went ahead with home schooling. Both children’s excessive and consistent stomach problems disappeared never to be seen or heard of again. Several years later, Joe says both his children, adults now, are well adjusted, successful and happy.

I wondered to myself how often our children’s body’s communicate to us via their guts and how difficult it might be for a parent to trust them as accurate. But most of us have felt at least once in our lives, something in our guts to be true before our brain could process the situation. Because I’m a nutritionist and a yoga therapist, I am always considering the mind-body connection. I realized that the answer to why Joe’s children’s guts should be trusted lie in the relationship between the Enteric Nervous System (ENS) and the 3rd Chakra.

The Enteric Nervous System is located in the digestive track and is known as the gut’s brain or the second brain. It comprises an estimated 500 million neurons! The ENS was first only thought to control digestion but now we understand that it plays an important role in our physical AND mental well-being. Just like our brain’s in our heads, this system sends and receives impulses, records experiences and responds to emotions. The first brain and the second brain interact and react with each other. However, the ENS can work independently from the brains in our head meaning that information that the gut sends to the brain doesn’t have to come from consciousness. The ENS helps you sense environmental threats and then influences your response. In addition, the gut’s brain is reported to play a role in good and bad feelings. Over 30 neurotransmitters are produced that are identical to those found in the first brain-one of which is serotonin. A whopping 90% of serotonin is located in the gut. Serotonin is the ‘fee-good’ hormone that regulates sleep, appetite and mood. So now we know why Joe’s kids had stomach aches! Their Enteric Nervous system was communicating, from a subconscious place, that something in their external environment was creating stress. Joe’s kids, 5 and 6 at the time didn’t have knowledge of why their tummies ached but their Enteric Nervous system did!

The 3rd Chakra gives us even more information about why Joe’s kids were having this reaction. The word Chakra means wheel or disk. In yoga, meditation and Ayurveda, this term refers to the wheels of energy throughout the body. There are seven main Chakras which align the spine starting from the base of the spine through to the crown of the head. The 3rd Chakra or the Solar Plexus Chakra is located between the navel and the solar plexus. This Chakra governs among other things, the digestive system. The solar plexus chakra regulates how centered we feel during the day in relation to our cognitive emotions. This Chakra, also called Manipura Chakra is all about sensing your personal power, being confident, responsible and reliable. It is the center of self-esteem and governs our sense of self, the power that we have within and over our destinies. When there is injury to the 3rd Chakra, we feel powerless. Our bodies respond to this tension by developing digestive distress or disorders.

Manipur or Solar Plexus Chakra represents ages 6 years to adolescence. This is the time frame when a child begins school and interacts with others such as teachers and friends but their primary influence is still their home. During this time, children must find their own identity within the family. If they are able to develop a sense of self while living in a family system they are able to develop confidence. So now we know why Joe’s children’s stomachs ceased hurting when Joe began home schooling. When Joe’s kids first entered school they may have felt that something wasn’t quite right but remained powerless to change their destinies thus digestive distress ensued. When Joe acknowledged, trusted and acted on what their children’s guts was telling him, his children gained a sense of personal power even though they didn’t cognitively know what was needed. Furthermore, they had space to begin developing the all the confidence and reliability needed to move into their adulthood.

What an amazing example of why it is so important to trust your child’s gut. Next time your child has a stomach ache, suffers from gastric distress or digestive issues, consider that their body is trying to communicate something important that they may not be aware of.

Children as Intuitive Eaters: How Parents Unintentionally Sabotage This Innate Cueing System

Children as Intuitive Eaters: How Parents Unintentionally Sabotage This Innate Cueing System
By: Maria Sorbara Mora, MS, CEDRD, PRYT, RYT

Photo Credit: adwriter via Compfight cc

As a nutritionist who specializes in the care and treatment of individuals with eating disorders, the concept of intuitive eating comes up often. Intuitive eating is a nutrition philosophy based on the premise that becoming more internally attuned to the body’s signals is a more effective way to attain a healthy weight and relationship to food, rather than using external cues to control how much one eats.

I often remind my clients that intuitive eating is the most organic process we have…and the earliest one that we develop. And although I pride myself on an Ivy League education and over fifteen years of experience in the field, my two children have served as better teachers of intuitive eating than both.

We are born intuitive eaters. Newborns instinctively crawl up to their mother’s breast and latch on moments after birth. Children innately self-regulate their food intake, knowing what they want, when they are hungry, and when they have had enough.

Leann L. Birch, a professor of Human Development at Pennsylvania State University, found that children instinctively self-regulate their food when:

a) Given a variety of foods to choose from

b) Given access to foods when they first become hungry  

c) Allowed to eat to satisfaction 

Although these three tenets may seem basic, many parents unintentionally sabotage intuitive eating cues in their children by asserting or inserting assumptions about feeding.  Let’s consider how this happens:

 

Offering Children a Variety of Foods vs. Only “Healthy Foods

I once had a mom proudly announce to me that she had never given her child juice…“only water.” I almost fell off my chair at the thought of a child going several years without being offered a cup of juice. I shared, “I give my children what they want.” She looked like she was going to fall off her chair.

 

The message is as parents, we may unintentionally restrict our children’s intake.  In 2000, Carper, Fischer and Birch found that when five-year-old girls were pressured to eat “healthy” foods, they began to restrict certain foods, eat emotionally, and eat with abandon. This is certainly not what a parent is intending to do when he/she innocently says that fruit is more healthy than chips. However, children get the message that their cues and choices are wrong if they want chips.

 

Within this premise is the practice of seeing all foods as equal.  I often remind my clients that foods are inherently neutral.  As parents we reflect our own judgments about food onto our children, which ultimately misinforms their intuitive nature.  In other words, it’s great to feel proud of our kids when they choose fruit, but is it possible for us to stay neutral when the choice is chips?

 

Access To Foods When Hungry vs Rigid Meal Times:

I remember feeling inadequate as a new mother when I got into discussions with other moms who put their newborns on rigid feeding schedules. I fed my children on demand and wondered why it was so hard for me to conform to a schedule.  I realize now however that it was difficult for me to put them on a feeding schedule because I practice and counsel intuitive eating. I trusted that my children knew better than I when their bodies need nourishment…then and now.

 

How many parents have at least once hollered at your kids for snacking too close to meal time? I’d be lying to say I haven’t done it myself! It’s an easy pattern to fall into. In our minds, we believe we know when our children need to eat. But, I’m here to tell you that this is a faulty premise to live by!

 

About a year ago I observed that when my children asked for food it was way earlier than my own meal or snack times. Many nights when I was cooking dinner they were already looking for something to eat. So I began doing something novel…I responded to what I observed. Instead of deciding that their meal times had to coincide with my meal times, I honored what their bodies were telling me about what they needed.

 

Now, I keep the snack drawer within reach of my 3 and 5 year old so that they can explore what they want WHEN they want. Sometimes my daughter says to me, ‘Mommy, I want a snack’. Other times, I’ll offer and they will check in with themselves. My son has a one liner he always says when he’s not hungry, ‘no thank you, I’m OK’. And you know what? He is!

 

The other thing I’ve learned from my children is the most fundamental rule of parenting…NOTHING STAYS THE SAME! My daughter was the most enthusiastic early morning eater. Just recently, she has decided that breakfast is not her thing. No matter what I put in front of her she doesn’t feel hungry first in the morning. By late morning however she’s ready to eat.

 

For those parents who believe in a more strict meal time schedule for your children, I ask you to consider this important fact… Children and teens have higher rates of metabolism than adults due to the massive growth they are undergoing. Bottom line is that our children will get hungry more often than we do and may need less or more in amounts than we think.   How can we adjust our understanding of meal and snack times as our children’s bodies grow without letting them feel as though they’ve done something wrong?

Photo Credit: orangeacid via Compfight cc

 

Eating until Satisfaction vs. Portions or Full Plate

Finally, the most impressive characteristic of children as it pertains to their eating habits is their keen sense of self-regulation. We notice our newborns pulling away from the breast or bottle when they’re full. Infants wolf down all their sweet potatoes one day while on other days seal their mouths shut after just a few spoonfuls. Later on in childhood we notice our children losing interest in foods as they near satiation.  This skill does NOT go away over time…unless we train our children to do something else.

 

The typical culprits of this is when parents either 1) impose an allotted amount of a food (pre-portion meals and snacks), 2) unilaterally determine when they’ve had enough (“You can’t be hungry for another yogurt, you just had one”), or 3) demand that they eat all of what was put in front of them (“Eat everything on your plate”). When we impose these rules on our children, we teach them to distrust their hunger and satiety and rely on external cues instead. We know that when individuals use external cues to assess hunger and satiety levels they are at higher risk for eating disorders.

Children come equipped with all the skills necessary to eat intuitively. As parents we can support this innate gift by observing our children’s natural eating habits rather than imposing our own agendas about what is healthy or enough. If we let go of our assumptions, we may just realize how much our kids DO know about how to feed themselves. They may also teach us a thing or two about what unadulterated listening to one’s body really looks like: eating what you want, when you want and eating the amount that your body needs.

 

Sources:

1)   Carper, J. L., J. Orlet Fischer, and L. L. Birch, “Young Girls’ Emerging Dietary Restraint and Disinhibition Are Related to Parental Control in Child Feeding.” Appetite 2, no. 35 (October 2000): 121–29.

2)   Birch, Leann L., et al., “Clean Up Your Plate: The Effects of Child Feeding Practices on the Conditioning f Meal Sizes.” Learning & Motivation no. 18 (1987): 301–7.