“Eggs? Meat? Nuts? All my child will eat is bread and ketchup”
“He’s a picky eater. He’d starve”
“It’s genetic, our family is full of picky eaters, she would never eat the GAPS food”
“It’s the textures… the only thing he will swallow is pureed food”
Yep, I understand. Many “GAPS Kids” or as I refer to them while talking with other parents who have special needs children, ‘our kids,’ have very strong likes and dislikes with food, and we can already feel like we’re battling to get them to eat our favorites. I just wrote a post about how I get my kids to eat– and this works well for our family now, after years of the GAPS diet and years of understanding her quirks and what wording or situations encourage or discourage her to eat healthy food.
So, how do I introduce the GAPS Diet with my special needs child?
- I’m a mom, not a medical professional, before changing your child’s diet you should run it by qualified professionals.
- After you’ve done that, I recommend slowly removing things from their diet. We were already dairy free when my little one was 2-1/2, so we next took out gluten. There are lots of child friendly gluten free casein free foods on the market now, so you most likely can find gluten free alternatives to what your child currently is eating.
- Going gluten free can cause a healing crisis, so allow your child to become completely comfortable gluten free before pushing it any more.
- Try different GAPS foods and see if any of them are enjoyed by your child, and gradually increase those as you can, while continuing the GFCF. See my GAPS Recipes page for ideas.
- Introduce probiotic containing foods like homemade sauerkraut and probiotic supplements if desired. These also can trigger healing crises so watch carefully.
- Next, go down to full GAPS, which is grain and refined sugar free. This could cause a rebellion, since when you pull the rest of the foods that are feeding the bad gut flora, the brain is flooded with messages that this diet is NOT what the bacteria want (see It’s the Bacteria Talking, below)
- And then finally try the GAPS Introduction diet. The Intro diet is so so healing and helpful, but jumping right in is a big change for many kids.
Desperate parents have tried jumping to Intro right away, and saw great benefits for it, but if you can try a more gradual approach, this is what we did and I feel it worked well. The previous steps took us about 10 weeks, so it’s not too too long, and we saw results with every step.
Wouldn’t it work to just not give in?
Nope. You can’t just put a plate of GAPS food in front of a child that has previously only eaten a very limited range of foods and expect them to finally give up and just eat it, it’s not a discipline issue, it’s a sensory issue. This advice might have worked for well meaning grandparents with typically developing children, but with GAPS kids this is a sensory issue – and they literally will starve themselves to the point of harm rather than eat a food they don’t find suitable.
It’s the bacteria talking
In the gut-brain connection post we talked about how bad gut flora can give off toxins that affect our brains like drugs. That’s what this sensitivity to textures and tastes is all about, in the same way our body tells us to avoid bitter foods because they likely are poisonous our kids with sensory issues are being ‘told’ that this food is not good to eat. That’s what makes picky eaters when it comes to sensory issues.
Give it just 7 days
The good thing about it being a gut flora issue is that it’s generally easily corrected! After just a week on the GAPS diet, or even gluten free, many kids are eating many more foods. I commonly get emails from parents that tell me that after a week on GAPS their 4 year old is happily eating tons of squash, soup, meat, and eggs- all foods that had been disliked in the past.
For the 3-7 days that you’re starting the diet, I wouldn’t worry about anything other than only limiting your child to GAPS approved foods. Even if they will only eat apple sauce for days, this often starves out enough of the bad gut flora that they can then tolerate more GAPS foods.
Your job during this time is to make sure they’re not getting any cheats at all- even a crumb of bread or couple grains of rice at this stage will feed the bad gut flora and prevent them from dying off, and all your hard work will be negated. Watch for sugar or additives in supplements, and get different versions if they have offending ingredients. GAPS, especially in the beginning, isn’t something you can do 80% or even 99%, it requires 100% adherence to be successful. After the gut has healed quite a bit (this was after about a year for us) occasional cheats won’t mess the GAPS person up so much, but at the beginning it’s mandatory to be strict.
Jump Starting Eating and Other Behavior Techniques
Even though starting GAPS will help considerably with eating new foods, parenting techniques can still help our children eat healthily. My little one has a combination of being easily overstimulated visually (lights, colors, movement), and under-stimulated with sound and touch/pressure. If any of these are out of balance, or if she’s overly hungry or tired she has a harder time focusing on eating, and this being hungry can just add to her being overwhelmed and inability to focus on eating.
To break the cycle if we get into it, I will do anything I can to get her to eat a few bites of food. Usually once she’s eaten a few bites she sees how good that feels, and will continue eating. To get the first few bites in, I often sit her on my lap (still! She’s 6!), put one arm behind my back, hold the other hand, and put a bite of whatever she’s most likely to eat from my plate in her mouth.
Another thing that works for her is to make a silly, loud, energetic game with it. Yes, I’ll still do the ‘airplane’ game with buzzing the fork around in the air, she enjoys it, I enjoy it, and it’s meeting her developmentally where she is at that moment.
Some parents have reported success letting kids do their favorite activity, and building taking a bite of food into it as a game. For example, the child might love stairs, so encourage them to walk up 3 stairs, and then in a happy encouraging voice say ‘3 stairs, then a bite, here you go, then 3 more stairs!’. Opening doors is a big one for us, we have used that to get her to do what she needs to do in the past too, “Open, shut, bite! Open, shut, bite!”. When doing diet therapies, it’s really important to just get the kids to eat however we can. Once we’re a few days or weeks in, it becomes so much easier, I promise.
For some children the ‘when, then’ approach works well. My daughter didn’t like that, but this is what’s described in the GAPS book and works for many parents. The diet is started by allowing one bite of favored food (any food, even non GAPS food) after a bite of GAPS food (soup, meat, etc) is eaten. This way the child gets used to the taste of the GAPS food, and slowly is weaned off the favored foods.
When we have toddlers with special needs, it looks like it might be easier to wait and start when the children can talk and reason. I personally advocate you start as soon as possible. When we started I could easily prevent my child from accessing foods that weren’t on the diet by putting them high in the pantry, putting a latch on the fridge, or just not having them available in the house. The older kids get, the more independent they are and the more access they have to illegal foods, and during the start of GAPS when the bad gut flora are dying off and sending chemicals to the brain that says you need bread, sugar, and grains, it’s really hard to have that much self control as an adult, much less a child.
Set a time period, a start date, and go!
When we started GAPS, I decided to start Nov 1, 2009, and we would try it for 30 days. That gave me the motivation to give it a good try. We obviously found it worth it to continue the diet, but getting through the first week was the hardest. If you have any other questions about getting a picky eater to start GAPS, please ask below!