When Your Baby Won’t Eat

Find out how this Italian Mamma grapples with the guilt that comes with having a baby boy who rejects her food

My baby is a little man with big strength. Photo by Francesca Di Meglio

“Eat, eat and get big,” said every Italian nonna since the beginning of time. Seriously, there were Italian cavewomen shoving spoons that they chiseled out of rock and that they filled with berries from the nearby tree into the mouths of their babes.

Italians feed their children with nutrition and deliciousness that is tantamount to pure love. My people were farm-to-table before that was a thing. Family dinner isn’t optional; it’s a guarantee like taxes and death.

So, when your Italian baby fails to gain weight and sometimes even rejects your food, you lose your identity, not to mention your mind. If you are unable to do the basics like feeding your child and helping him grow, who are you? Can you still call yourself mamma?

Mamma’s Boy

My 15-month-old son is dreadfully underweight at nearly 18 pounds. The tags that still read “size 9 months” on his pajamas mock me. There were complications in my pregnancy. I had an insufficient placenta that no one recognized until delivery, despite having to go to the maternal fetal medicine office weekly because of my advanced age.

I was 41 when I birthed him. And he was born at only 4 pounds 15 ounces. While he was nearly as small as a Polly Pocket, he proved larger than life when you consider all he had to overcome to survive. He arrived a couple months before the pandemic, so relatives flocked to the hospital and our home in the first days of his life.

They wrapped him up in their arms. No one dared say anything more than, “I don’t remember my kids ever being this little.” This is standard conversation when visiting any newborn. But I already began wearing his tiny figure like a scarlet letter on my chest.

I imagined my loved ones at gatherings that did not include me. In these visions, they would be talking about our baby’s misfortune and my failure. Of course, they would be hatching plots to get more milk in him. I wasn’t entirely against that last part. Their help would feed us and plump him up, I hoped.

Probably, they were not as organized as I imagined in my mind. However, my people are not known for keeping secrets, and they must have at least thought about the problem. After all, eventually their advice got back to me.

The Consiglieri

Who said I should breastfeed exclusively? Who said to quit breastfeeding and stick with formula only? Then, another said to add cereal to whatever milk we were using. Did it matter that he was two weeks old and doctors did not recommend cereal yet? Of course not! The Italian family knows better than any doctors. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that my relatives have that kind of phrase tattooed on their bottoms.

No matter. My husband and I solicited their suggestions and tried them all. Our family members grew babies into big, strong adults. We’re still working on it, so we have no problem relying on their experience.

But the baby threw up. Or he didn’t throw up, but he would weld his mouth shut. Now that we have moved onto solid food, he remains committed to purees. If we sneak in pastina, otherwise known as Italy’s panacea, he will make a noise like a seal in heat before choking and remitting the entire meal. Forget about trying to give him Plasmon cookies. (Plasmon is Italy’s answer to Gerber.) He won’t eat friggin’ cookies. What kind of baby is he?

Sometimes, we can’t even get that far. He waves his hands in front of the spoon to disorient me. He grunts in anger and disbelief. Then, he sends the pureed green beans, olive oil, and chicken sailing across the room before it takes a swan dive onto our couch. I’m not going to lie. He makes me cry.

Doctor, Doctor

Then, we see the doctors, the real ones as opposed to the Italian ones who play doctor in my living room. The real ones take test after test and lead us down rabbit holes of terror. Maybe he has a most severe food allergy. Nope. Perhaps, he has brain damage and those times he stuck out his tongue are seizures, they tell me. Wrong and wrong.

Next, they tell me to take him to the lab. There, I must hold him down with two technicians while both of us are crying and gasping for air, so they can draw vials of blood until he seems empty. We must do this to rule out a million other diseases and deformities. Finally, we have to undergo genetic testing to see if the love between my husband and me created some kind of mutant.

Right about now, I’m asking, “Can I have another visit with those fake Italian doctors who share my mutant blood and just think I’m feeding him incorrectly?” At least, they love us, don’t make up stories that are the stuff of nightmares, and refrain from torture. Alas, that’s impossible in the middle of a global pandemic. I’m stuck with the so-called real doctors.

Sizing Up the Problem

An old friend of mine tried to quell my fears when we spoke on the phone. “You and your brother and sister were 80 pounds wet when you were teenagers. Maybe he’s just like you.” Maybe. But we were never this underweight as babies. My brother looked like he had eaten my sister and me when he was my son’s age.

In the dark of night, I fixate on this dilemma and how my baby’s weight and tiny frame is a health risk and could damage his self-esteem to boot, not to mention that it will define me as a bad Italian mamma. In fact, I can’t quite believe how much his size is tied up with my identity as a mother. I feel even more guilt for having those thoughts.

Feeding the Soul

Then, to fall asleep, my baby son touches my lips with his tiny fingers. He squeezes my mouth and rests his legs on my knees. It’s our nightly ritual. When he finally gives in to slumber, his cheek leans on my chest. His every breath is my lullaby. The heavy weight of guilt that rests on my shoulders slides off me. We have peace, and I am an Italian mamma again.

When the sun rises in the morning, I have a little bit of hope that today will be the turning point. He will suddenly have a voracious appetite or one of the doctors will figure out what’s happening and fix it already. Of course, I will move on to feeling guilty about the next thing, whatever that may be. After all, that’s kind of the norm for Italian mammas, err most mothers anywhere.

Right here and now, I grab that baby spoon and give it another go. My mission? To feed my baby like a mother.

Francesca Di Meglio is a veteran reporter who has worked for Bloomberg Businessweek and Ladies’ Home Journal. Visit francescaandantonio.com for her blog.

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