Today we hear from Stephanie Cahill, an oncology nurse and special needs mother to 4-year-old Benjamin. She shares her story and some encouragement about the importance of nourishing yourself and your kids with whole foods while raising a child with special needs. Connect with Stephanie on Instagram or at her blog, cleanerstephanie.com.
My Whole30 story
At birth, my son Ben required a 3 week NICU stay, and then came home on oxygen for 4 months. He was diagnosed with low muscle tone and a congenital heart defect, and at 18 months he was diagnosed with global developmental delays, including autism. By 2 years postpartum, I was still experiencing what I later learned was PTSD surrounding his birth, feelings of anxiety and depression, brain fog, and what felt like a constant state of overwhelm or “fight or flight” mode.
Fortunately, a dear friend pointed me to Whole30. I bought the book, did my research, and got my husband on board. I reached out on Facebook and started a group of local first-timers in January 2017. My “Why” is simple—it was, and still is, Benjamin. I want to be the best mother and advocate that I can. I want to live healthfully with sound mind and body to provide what Ben needs into old age. Motherhood, with the added layer of special needs, can be very isolating. The importance of connecting with a community was invaluable during my first Whole30 and continues to be a huge support for me.
In January 2017 we completed our first Whole30. My biggest NSVs were improved energy and better sleep habits. As an exhausted special needs mom this was huge! My confidence skyrocketed after completing something that I honestly didn’t think I could do. I felt happier overall and much more mentally clear. It’s amazing what replacing your bagel and cream cheese for Melissa’s Chicken Hash can do to start your day off right!
Taking care of myself
I’ve since completed 4 Whole30 resets, and I’m still working out my food freedom. I’m far from perfect, but the lessons I’ve learned on properly fueling my body and mind have stuck. The stressors with my son’s development are ongoing. I worry about his future. Some strategies I use to cope are mindfulness, the Headspace meditation app, getting to barre class when I can, or doing a 5 minute yoga flow at home. I also started seeing a family/marriage therapist for additional support and strategies to manage my anxiety. Therapy is a fantastic resource if you need extra support.
Tips for feeding a highly sensory child
Whole food nutrition is so important to me, and working with Ben is challenging to say the least. He is a highly sensory child with food aversions. Compared to his other delays and therapies, feeding therapy seems to have the slowest progress at times. If this is your child, take heart and read on. Here are some strategies that have helped us.
1. Take the mood out of the food.
Kids feed off our energy (pun intended). Low stress, no pressure exposures, paired with pleasant family mealtimes and structure helps. Celebrate every small success. We affectionately call this celebrating “inchstones.” Rather than focusing on major milestones of development, we learned early on to celebrate the smaller, often less noticed but just as worthy inchstones. Give yourself grace and patience. You are doing your best, mama! My pediatrician also reminded me that as long as he is maintaining his growth curve trajectory that we are doing a good job. You are too.
2. Seek a occupational or feeding therapist and nutritionist, if needed.
When Ben was slow to transition to solids and very slow to graduate to a sippy cup, it helped to have a professional guide us with tips and techniques. Your pediatrician can set you up with a referral.
3. Supplement as needed, with your pediatrician’s approval.
Like many other ASD kiddos, Ben is a carboholic. He loves fruit and struggles with protein and vegetable intake. We supplement with a daily multivitamin, fiber, and probiotic mixed in his sippy cup. A few strategies we use to increase fat intake is adding a dash of fractionated coconut oil or grassfed butter to his pouches and jar food. We also use Vital Proteins collagen for an additional protein source, as it mixes in totally undetectably. Another tip I heard recently on the Whole Mamas Podcast is to cook with mineral- rich bone broth instead of water when possible, for items like veggies, rice, or pasta.
4. Patience, my dear.
It can take up to 15 exposures before a child accepts a new food. Try different presentations, cooking methods, and seasoning/dips. For example, try slivered carrots, waffle cut carrots, steamed carrots, shredded carrots, mashed carrots, and/or carrots with dips. These days, most grocery stores carry spiralized and riced veggies, giving mamas a variety of easy options.
Ben’s favorite recipe
This recipe is NOT Whole30 compliant because pancakes (and the flour has rice/sorghum), but it is well-loved. In our home, we value progress over perfection, and this recipe works great for us, as it hits all the macros of carbs, protein, and fat, with some micronutrients in the spinach and collagen!
Ben’s Banana Pancakes
3 tbsp Bob’s Red Mill 1:1 Gluten Free Flour
Handful of spinach chopped finely
Pinch of cinnamon
½ scoop of Vital Proteins collagen peptides
Fork mash all ingredients in a bowl.
Lightly pan-fry in coconut oil on both sides until golden brown.