Mum who ‘force fed’ young son ‘out of desperation’ before finding out he had an eating disorder now helps other parents

Mum who ‘force fed’ young son ‘out of desperation’ before finding out he had an eating disorder now helps other parents

A mum of two who “force-fed” her young son “out of desperation” as he would “rather starve” than eat new foods until the age of two, now runs a business helping other parents after finding out her boy has a selective eating disorders.

Grace Willis, 43, from Bedfordshire, the founder of Happy Little Eaters, who lives with her husband, 44, whom she does not wish to name, and their nine-year-old twins, who go by their pseudonyms Theo and Lily online, found feeding her prematurely born children “stressful” as it was important that they put on weight.

At three months old, Theo refused to feed, making Grace feel “utterly hopeless” as a parent, and after meeting with a dietitian, she realized she was putting “too much pressure” on her child to eat.

Theo’s aversion to food continued, often gagging whenever he tried new foods, and at age two, he was formally diagnosed with a selective eating disorder as he would not eat anything “that had a smell to it.”

Grace Willis
Grace found feeding her children stressful as soon as they were born because they were premature (Sarah Legge Photography/PA Real Life)

Over time, Grace began implementing a more laid-back attitude to meal times, and Theo’s eating habits have improved dramatically – he is now only particularly fussy about “anything creamy”.

In 2019, Grace decided that she wanted to help other parents who are going through similar struggles with their children, and launched her blog, Happy Little Eaters, which encourages “giving the child control of their hunger levels” and their food preferences.

“I don’t feel great about saying this, but we force-fed him out of desperation,” Grace said.

“I now want to highlight the dangers of doing that, but at the time, as a parent, you only want to do what is best for your child, and I just feel utterly hopeless.

Theo and Lily
After meeting with a dietitian, Grace realized she was putting too much pressure on her child to eat (Sarah Legge Photography/PA Real Life)

“We did things like distracting him when he was feeding and changing the formula but nothing was working.

“My anxiety was just horrendous, and I felt rubbish.”

When Grace gave birth to her twins one month prematurely in 2013, she quickly began to feel overwhelmed, explaining: “The worry started from the hospital – I was being told to feed them every two or three hours because they were premature, and I found it quite stressful.

“It was important for them not to lose weight in the first few weeks.

Theo, Lily and Grace
Theo would often gag whenever he tried new foods (Sarah Legge Photography/PA Real Life)

“We didn’t have any issues with my daughter, but from around three months of age, Theo started refusing his milk and began losing weight for several months.”

Grace and her husband decided to see a pediatric dietitian when he reached six months.

“The dietitian gave him a bottle and he drank it all, we couldn’t believe our eyes – it turned out that we were putting too much pressure on him, and because I was sitting there not expecting him to feed it influenced him,” said Grace.

“Babies can also pick up on anxiety and body language.”

As Theo got older, his aversion to feeding continued, Grace explained: “He wouldn’t touch anything that had a smell to it.

Theo, Lily and Grace
At age two, Theo was formally diagnosed with a selective eating disorder (Sarah Legge Photography/PA Real Life)

“He had a tendency to go towards beige, safe foods, and if he tried new food he would gag, and still does.

“If we didn’t get help, he’d probably just want to eat pizza – I have to introduce new foods to him slowly, he was at the point where he would rather start than trying new things.”

Grace and her husband carried on seeing dietitians to learn more about how to feed Theo, and at two years old he was diagnosed with a selective eating disorder.

Grace tearfully said: “I remember the exact moment we got told he had a selective eating disorder, it was a huge relief but I felt incredibly guilty and as if it was my fault because I put too much pressure on to eat.”

Theo, Lily and Grace
In 2019, Grace launched her blog to help other parents (Sarah Legge Photography/PA Real Life)

Over time, Grace also realized some of her food habits may have impacted Theo’s outlook on mealtimes.

She said: “I grew up in the eighties, and there was a huge pressure to finish everything on your plate.

“Now, there’s more evidence and research to suggest that actually, if you let the child be in charge of their appetite, and what they choose to eat, the long term benefits foster a much healthier relationship with food in general.

“I swear blindly that if I hadn’t got help at the time, I don’t know where we’d be because I’d still be pressuring him to eat, stressing out about the quantity.

Theo
Theo still won’t eat yogurt, butter or anything creamy (Sarah Legge Photography/PA Real Life)

“He is still very sensitive and averse to stuff, quite a lot of textures and smells, but I feel like I want to credit this dietitian because they saved us.”

Since working with health professionals and having a more laid-back approach to mealtimes, Grace explained Theo’s eating habits now, saying: “There’s still food he won’t touch like yogurt and anything with butter, or anything creamy.

“I don’t know if it’s because I can trace it back to the time when he had it and then he was vomited.

“I think it’s because I’ve lowered my expectations and it’s accepted that we all have our preferences and are just looking at the bigger picture.”

grace
Grace wants to raise awareness about giving children control of what they eat and their appetite levels (Sarah Legge Photography/PA Real Life)

In 2019 Grace decided she wanted to launch a blog, Happy Little Eaters, to help other families with their children’s eating habits.

She said: “I’ve created a few recipes, which are on my website that people can download, and I talk about how to get your kids to try new foods.

“I do a lot of practical work with parents one-on-one and I get a lot of support from dietitians.

“My passion is to raise awareness of a different feeding approach, which I think is life-changing especially for children who are fussy eaters.

Theo
Grace thanks Theo’s dietitian for improving his attitude to food (Sarah Legge Photography/PA Real Life)

“I love the subject, I’ve seen the change in my own kids, and I want to help lots of other parents too.

“My main idea is minimizing the pressure about finishing your plate, and giving the child control of their hunger levels and what they would like to eat.”

Theo
Grace has to introduce new foods to Theo slowly (Sarah Legge Photography/PA Real Life)

Looking to the future, Grace hopes to continue to raise awareness about selective eating disorders, and has recently partnered with Munchkin on their new Time to Wean campaign.

She said: “I’m excited to raise awareness about the stresses of feeding time after their recent research.”

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