"I never thought I'd be that kind of mother," sighed the 2-year-old's mom as he toyed with his peanut-butter sandwich.
Every parent knows "that kind of mother." She's the one who urges her child to eat one more little bite. Who shamelessly manipulates the child's options. Who frets about a growing youngster's nutritional needs, even though the kid looks great.
She is, in short, just about every mother. And she is wasting her time and energy.
"Vitamin deficiency in this country just does not exist," said Dr. Alvin Mauer, professor of medicine and pediatrics at the University of Tennessee in Memphis. "Food availability in this country is so superior that for almost all children eating a normal, varied diet, there simply is no need for supplementation."
A key word there, of course, is "almost." "There are some exceptions with perfectly normal children," said Mauer, who is past chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on nutrition. "For example, some women who breast-feed may not have enough Vitamin D if it is winter, and they're not drinking enough milk that's fortified with Vitamin D. So in that case, we would recommend supplementation for the infant." Otherwise, Mauer said, "only a disaster disease," such as a bowel abnormality that prevents absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, will produce the need for extra vitamins.
Yet parents continue to worry--in part, because they are accustomed to the idea of nutrition as a daily challenge.
"It's much more useful to think of a child's diet on a week-to-week basis," Mauer said. "People think that if you don't get your Vitamin C every single day, you'll wake up tomorrow with scurvy. But if you remember how the need for Vitamin C was discovered, by sailors who took limes out to sea, you realize that they had to be out there a long, long time before getting scurvy. Today, you could certainly go for a week or so without taking in Vitamin C and be fine."
Parents often become concerned with a toddler who becomes "picky," rejecting former favorites or suddenly eating much smaller quantities of food. This may come as a child finishes a growth spurt. They were eating everything in sight, then suddenly it seems they aren't eating anything. There is a slowdown when the child is really too young to be up and running and truly active.
That is when real mealtime trouble can begin. "Often Grandma is the first to detect the difference, and she says something to the mother," Mauer said. If things deteriorate, "the parents are using all kinds of maneuvers when the kid is not hungry, and a situation that should be relaxed and delightful--that, is mealtime--becomes very hostile and unpleasant for everyone."
Instead, parents should try to stand back, offering the child some nutritious possibilities without making an issue of eating. And don't rely on "insurance"--popping a daily supplement, just to be safe.
"Can that hurt the child? The answer is yes, it can," Mauer said. "Because you're instilling in that child the notion that you've got to get health out of a bottle.
"If you listen to television for 24 hours, you know there's not a healthy person anywhere in America. Vitamin pills, keeping regular, headaches--I think we're setting a standard with this that will follow a child through the rest of his life."