Eating Paleo in the Real World: It’s a Jungle Out There

 

Most people I speak to about the Paleo lifestyle understand its benefits and can see it working for their family on some level. I most often hear the what ifs and what abouts around things like birthday parties, restaurants, grandparents’ house, and even school. In fact, my WordPress stats show me that many people come to this site via Google searches like Paleo lunches, Paleo birthday parties, and Paleo on the go.

Clearly, this is a valid question for most people considering the switch to Paleo, and I completely understand these concerns. So today I thought I’d share with you the crazy-updside-down week that my family and I just lived through. After reading this you will see that eating Paleo is possible when life pulls you outside of the comfort of your own kitchen.

Scenario #1: The Dance Recital

Dana and Charlotte participate in weekly ballet lessons, and twice a year their studio puts on performances. Last December, Charlotte made her performance debut in The Nutcracker. After agonizing over the decision of whether she was ready for a commitment to the classes, the rehearsals, getting on stage, and the chaos of it all, she put our mind at ease and performed like a champ.

Her motivation to perform and endure the challenges that come with it most likely come from the years of watching her sister dress up in costumes and make-up to be cheered and praised by friends and family. Having survived the stress and anxiety of the December performance, we knew she would love the performing experience again and we used what we learned to be better prepared this time around.

On the night of the dress rehearsal, we were told to arrive at 5:00pm. Both girls needed to have hair and make-up done and were instructed to bring dry snacks, not to be eaten in costume. As you can imagine, examples of dry snacks were non-Paleo foods like crackers, pretzels, and granola bars. I entertained the idea of eating an early dinner just before we left, but with a 30 minute drive to the stage, hair and make-up to be done, and a nap for Charlotte until the last possible second, packing food for dinner was the only option. I had planned ahead the night before by roasting a large chicken with lots of meat and baking a few extra potatoes, ensuring easy-to-pack leftovers.

Dana’s Planet Box is shown below. The foods were not exactly dry, but not messy either. I kept an eye on her in the holding area backstage and made sure she used her napkin, didn’t eat in her costume, and washed her hands immediately upon finishing her dinner. I also let her know that other kids would have junk food/fast food, and that just wasn’t an option for us.

Charlotte’s dinner was similar, but catered to her preferences. Lots of napkins and washing hands kept her and the costume clean and her belly full.

Since I was camped out with Dana at the dress rehearsal until 10pm that night (Chad picked up Charlotte earlier) I knew that Paleo food was the only way to survive the marathon of dance numbers I had the privilege of watching. Here’s my dinner:

Both girls performed beautifully and the recital was a huge success!

It’s worth mentioning that the anxiety that comes with hours of waiting in a holding area filled with jittery, young dancers brought Charlotte’s needs for sensory input out in the open. I managed to snap a few shots of her regulating herself in a stressful environment. While these situations are not ideal, I was very proud of her for finding ways to stay calm enough to avoid a meltdown, still remember her dances, and even smile on stage.                                       

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scenario #2: The Hospital

On the night of the recital, Chad mentioned to me that his stomach was not quite right and he was feeling pain and discomfort. At 3 am, he woke me up from a sound sleep and let me know this stomach pain was like nothing he had experienced before. We phoned the ER, and he was told to come in with a driver. I made a call to my amazing friend Siiri, and she arrived at our door within minutes to stay with our sleeping kids.

After isolating the pain to the lower right quadrant of Chad’s abdomen and getting a CT scan, it was determined that he was in the midst of an appendicitis attack. We were thrilled to see our friend Dr. Mike at the hospital who reassured us that this was a random event that had nothing to do with diet, lifestyle, or overall health. With a sigh of relief, Chad slipped into a morphine nap and we waited for an OR to open and have his angry appendix removed. 

I checked on the kids and then began to think about some breakfast for myself. Seeing that my health issues tend to center around stressful events, bringing on excessive adrenaline, I knew that some clean food was in order to get me through a long day at the hospital. I fought feelings of panic and anxiety as I approached the hospital cafeteria cautiously, expecting to find nothing suitable for to me eat.

I was delighted to find a bar of warm food with eggs, sausage, and bacon. I loaded up my plate with dry-but-edible scrambled eggs, 2 pieces of bacon, and some starchy carbs in the form of tasteless hash browns. (I’m one of those carb eating Paleo people, and I do much better keeping potatoes in the rotation a few times per week)

After my Paleo breakfast and a hot cup of coffee, I felt much better and Chad and I hung out until it was time for his surgery. After I got word from his doctor that he had made it through surgery, I ventured back down to the cafeteria for lunch. I ordered a bunless hamburger from the man at the grill and cheated with some sweet potato fries (I’m sure it was not coconut oil that I saw in the deep fryer).

Once Chad was settled in an overnight room, I was back at the cafeteria for dinner and asked for a grilled chicken breast to sit on top of lettuce greens and veggies from the salad bar, drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. When I returned to Chad’s room to eat my dinner, he joked at how Paleo it was and that we should consider a date night at the hospital cafeteria.

While it was surprising to find Paleo options at the cafeteria, it did take a certain amount of will power and focus to walk past plenty of packaged foods and treats that seemed to be more tempting in times of stress and little sleep. Resisting this temptation and eating clean paid off when I returned home at 8pm and found that I had enough energy and sanity to put my very tired kids to bed. I gave huge hugs to my incredible friends Kimberly and Siiri who not only kept my kids entertained all day but managed to feed them Paleo all day as well.

Scenario #3: Junk food at Summer Day Camp

There was no rest for the weary over the weekend at home as I tended to Chad in his recovery, nursed Charlotte with a throat virus and a fever, got my house back in order, and managed my own needs for sleep and rest. In the midst of this chaos, I kept the upcoming week in the back of my mind. Dana was scheduled to attend a week-long day camp at our church, and I had been informed of the provided snacks via email. While we normally opt for packing our own snacks at events where a non-Paleo snack is provided, this situation provided a bit more of a challenge.

All of the snacks were tied thematically to the day’s lesson, and most of them involved junk food, including goldfish crackers, pretzels, marshmallows, whoppers, and other candies. I knew that asking Dana to sub a box of raisins for these super fun activities and treats was too much to ask. She is still a kid, after all.

I talked to her about the situation, and the food options would may have worked fine if it were just a one day camp. But given that the camp was all week and the fever bug was running through our house, I knew I needed a more Paleo option to give Dana the best chance at staying healthy and enjoying the camp.

I remembered seeing a cookie-like treat made with sunflower seed butter in our copy of Eat Like a Dinosaur by The Paleo Parents. I was so relieved to find a quick and easy recipe for Mini Nut Butter Cups. We made a bunch of super-yummy, kid-friendly, nut-free, muffin-shaped cookies with just a few ingredients that were easy to transport. This morning we filled a baggie with a bunch of grapes and a few cookies and sent her off to camp with a snack that she was excited to eat, despite what the other kids had. 

We survived this week and managed to eat clean with the help of our amazing friends, some luck, lots of preparation, and a wonderful resource. It has taken two years, but I can proudly say that we have established a lifestyle around Paleo. We were able to make it work in the most trying of circumstances. So the next time someone asks us about Paleo and all of the what ifs and what abouts, I’ll remind them that it’s not just a way of eating, it’s a way of living.

For more inspiration on staying Paleo in trying times, read about NomNomPaleo’s adventures of living in a hotel room with her family for the last 2 months.

Nutrients & Anti-nutrients

Since I’ve experienced a significant reduction in my PMS sytmptoms and had a noticable difference in my hair re-growth, I have come to accept nutrient-dense beef liver one of the staples in my diet. Rather than treating my thinning hair and severe PMS as unfixable and unfortunate genetic gifts that I was just going to have to live with, I’ve recognized these annoying traits as important messages from my body. As a reward for paying attention, my body has responded with thicker hair and a better mood.

What’s amazing to me is how the body knows to prioritize these sacred nutrients. Now that I realize that it takes nutrients to make the systems of the body work together (something that I had always just taken for granted before), I can understand that my life-giving organs (heart, lungs, etc) and my life-making organs (uterus) take what they need while somehow my body knows that I will survive another day if my hair health and happiness level remain unattended for a while.

What’s beautiful about my Paleo journey is that I can apply it to the adorable bundles of genetic material sitting at the breakfast table with me every morning. Feeding their bodies fresh pastured eggs and fresh fruit gives me a sense of pride and relief that they are getting a host of nutrients that will power them through their day and give them a better foundation of overall health. I recognize that their bodies and minds are developing faster than I can keep nutrient-dense foods in them, and with unlimited funds and energy, I’d be giving them the cleanest, pastured-raised and most nutrient-dense proteins alongside locally grown, organic fruits and vegetables.

What’s puzzling to me about the food industry is how foods that we were not designed to eat (grains, legumes, and even dairy) end up in packages containing messages of health and nutrition for those who consume them. Bagels and cereal are disguised as food when really they are the opposite of health. All grains contain anti-nutrients, and as you may have guessed by my recent love-affair with nutrients, they are something that I want nothing to do with. In fact, I’m hoping that this post gets you seriously thinking about replacing your nutrient-deficient bowl of cereal with a nutrient-rich scrambled egg.

So what is an anti-nutrient and why is it so bad?

From the What is Paleo? page on this site: It is important to think of grains as a plant that lives in the wild and must defend itself from predators like any animal would. Grains and like plants use toxins called anti-nutrients (lectin, gluten, phytates) to protect themselves from being eaten. That is why they must go through extensive processing to be edible for humans. The heavy processing still leaves inflammatory agents in the grains that wreak havoc on our digestive systems, insulin regulation, and other bodily functions. Contrary to Conventional Wisdom, even whole grains are not healthy.

In addition, anti-nutrients do just what their name implies–they prevent the body’s absorption of these crucial vitamins and minerals.

Respecting the body and learning its signals is an important part of regaining our overall health. In our case, using the Paleo diet to restore nutrients to mine and Charlotte’s depleted systems, we enabled a healing process that is leading us out of a desperate situation. We’re not alone. A nutrient-rich Paleo diet has healed many broken and depleted systems.The internet is filled with Paleo success stories of individuals healing themselves from everything from Fibromyalgia to GERD.

Adding nutrients to improve Autism may be catching on. In this article on minimizing Autism incidence, posted by my friends Molly & Leah at A Ventography, nutritional deficiencies were listed as a critical component to treating Autism. And while I recognize that the causes and severity of Autism and related disorders are complex and vary from child to child, it doesn’t seem to make any sense to continue to feed our children and ourselves anything that would prevent the optimum absorption of nutrients.

I often say that we treated Charlotte’s Autism by treating it as a symptom of distress within the network of systems that is her body. All of the nutrients that she eats and the anti-nutrients that she avoids have given her body the ability to heal itself. As she grows and understands how food makes her feel, she will learn the valuable lesson of listening to and respecting her body’s capabilities and limits.

For more information on food politics and the over-production of grains, see part 4 of this HBO Documentary: The Weight of the Nation.

Click here for a video clip of Mark Sisson discussing the effects grains have on our bodies.

Robb Wolf’s post on Kids, Paleo, and Nutrient Density.

Autism Awareness Day

I took Dana to Home Depot this weekend to buy our blue lightbulbs in support of the Light it up Blue Autism Awareness Campaign for Autism Speaks. She knows enough about Autism to know that her sister has been affected, but she wasn’t really clear about the term awareness.  I explained Awareness as people talking about and listening to those who have been touched by Autism as a way to bring about change and help the families that need it–just like we try to do with our website.

She nodded and said she understood. I initially felt good about our conversation and educating her about this grown up topic, but later I struggled with the term awareness and what April 2nd was supposed to accomplish. Does Autism really need more awareness?

People are aware. Just last week the CDC reported that Autism effects 1 in 88. That’s staggering. With those numbers, Autism will hit close to home, for many people. If it’s not your brother’s son or cousin’s daughter, it will soon be your child’s classmate, a coworker’s child, a neighbor down the street, or a child at the park.

People are aware. They are seeing it in their homes, schools, and community, and parents of children with other special needs wish their child’s issues were as widely known and accepted as those with Autism.

People are aware. So now what? What can I do about it? How can I make Awareness the way I described it to Dana–listening to those families who have been affected to bring about change.

The day is here. And with a small platform and a big voice, I have so much to tell you. What can I say on a day when everyone is listening that will make a difference?

It may not be life-changing or ground-breaking, but I feel like I’ve done my part today if I share the following things with you:

Toxins

The cause of Autism is unknown, but no one can ignore the daunting words like environmental toxins that swirl around the comments and chat rooms posted by moms and dads of Autistic kids. Toxins are everywhere and scary and they affect each child differently. It has been said that Autistic kids are canaries in the coal mine, letting us know that something in our environment is making the most sensitive very sick. Our experience tells us that toxins in foods contributed to Charlotte’s delays. Gluten, dairy, sugar, and soy were harmful to her system and caused neurological issues.

Removing these toxins improved her symptoms.

I can’t speak much for toxins in vaccines, but I will share this with you. The vaccine and Autism connection scared the crap out of us even before we had kids. Seven years ago when Dana was an infant the numbers were 1 in 166. That was enough for us to take alternative action. We were overly cautious and set up an alternative schedule for vaccinations for both girls (only 1 or 2 at a time/1 week apart). But despite our best efforts to avoid Autism, it was still handed to us.

That being said, Charlotte’s symptoms have always been very mild. She’s had only minor social delays with some repetitive language and sensory processing issues. She had no delays in receptive or expressive language and no significant motor delays.

It is our belief that if we had adhered to the standard vaccination schedule, her issues would be much more severe.

Support and Services

When Charlotte received a medical diagnosis of Autism in 2010, we were told that we would receive adequate support to get her what she needed, based on the information collected during the 5 hour testing process. This was not the case. While she had enough “deficits” to qualify for the label of Autism, she did not have enough “delays” to receive ANY treatment or services. We were referred to our local school district, whose tests indicated that her medical diagnosis did not match her scores for an educational diagnosis. In other words, she had the ability to learn and excel academically but she wouldn’t be able to sit still in her chair, do her work without interrupting other students, and would probably have trouble making friends on the playground.

We had to fight tooth-and-nail for her services based on the testing done at the time of her diagnosis. After four months of fighting with our insurance provider, we did get a contract in place for Occupational Therapy that helps tremendously with Charlotte’s mild motor delays, impulsivity, and sensory issues. The OT helps regulate her system so she can try out her new social skills, learn how to get along with her sister, and communicate with her peers.

Day to Day Life

We feel very fortunate to be where we are in this journey with Charlotte. We have overcome tremendous obstacles and taken control of her health issues while bringing the child trapped in sensory dysregulation and social anxiety out of her shell. We work hard to make sure she is feeling and acting her best every single day. We cannot let a day go by without checking to make sure we’re doing everything we can for her. Our meals, schedule, and life must be documented and planned to ensure that it works for Charlotte. Even small changes to her routine or environment can dysregulate her and turn our lives upside down.

With all of this in mind, please consider the following…

Autism is caused by environmental factors and affects the most sensitive of children.

Environmental factors like wheat, mercury, and milk may be harming our kids, but nothing will be done about it if it means loss of income for Big Food or Big Pharma.

No one can make money on a “cure” for Autism. Each child responds differently to his or her environment and each child must be treated and cared for based on their individual needs…there’s no pill for that.

Insurance companies are quick to diagnose kids on the spectrum, but turn the families over to school districts, who do not have funds or services to handle the increased numbers of children with needs.

Each parent who cares for an Autistic child must work diligently against the clock to protect their child from these environmental factors, while fighting for the services and therapies to help them.

I’ve done my part if you are now AWARE of what Autism really is…for our family, at least.

Living Outside Your Paleo Bubble–kids birthday parties

We recently had a birthday party for Dana and Charlotte. It was a relatively small gathering for a few friends and family members at our home. We served lunch, sang happy birthday, and enjoyed cake. No one would ever know that our family, and specifically, our kids ate a diet that was different from any other child at the party.

The lunch spread included deli trays of ham, turkey, roast beef, salami, cheeses, and other antipasto treats like olives and sun-dried tomatoes. We did provide some dinner rolls for those who chose to make sandwiches. The crowd favorite was an enormous bowl of freshly made guacamole. We provided corn chips (gluten-free) and veggies for dipping. There was also lots and lots of fresh fruit. We received many comments on how fresh and delicious the food was. It was not limited to a Paleo diet, as most of our friends and family members eat grains and dairy, but we were still able to provide the birthday girls with a delicious lunch of their favorite Paleo foods.

I can assume that the positive comments that we received from our friends and family were based on the fact that our fare was considerably different from a typical meal served at a  kids’ birthday party. Foods of convenience like pizza or frozen hot dogs or hamburgers are the mainstay at kids’ birthday parties these days, and if you are trying to raise a Paleo family, you recognize what a challenge this is.

In the defense of other parents who choose throw a *traditional* party for their child with pizza delivery and store-bought cake, it was a lot of work and a significant expense to provide the spread we did. We woke early to prepare food, made a trip to pick up the deli trays, budgeted the expenses, and planned ahead to find a gluten-free cake that would be okay for the girls to eat. Our situation and lifestyle demands this type of planning and preparation.

We take that same mindset into modern-day parties and social events outside of our home when we know that there are going to be limited options for our kids to eat. Being prepared to attend a birthday party or social event with your children is the same as being prepared to go anywhere. You pack your child’s homework and anything they need for the day when they go to school. You pack a suitcase for going on a trip. Before a birthday party, you even buy and wrap a gift. Thinking about the food that you and/or your child will eat at that party is an often missed but crucially important next step.

Here’s some things to think about when you RSVP for your next kids’ party:

Meal or Entrée

*Email or call the parent and ask what they are planning to serve at the party before you attend. Explain that you are making some changes to your child’s diet and you want to be prepared. You may get lucky and have grilled sausages or barbecued chicken with fresh fruit and veggies.

*Feed your kids a big breakfast or lunch before attending a party where the entrée is not Paleo approved. If they feel full and don’t have a strong desire to eat, allow them to nibble on a few pieces of protein and spend their time playing and enjoying the party.

*Bring your own food. Pack a large snack or a lunch box for your child just as you would if they were going to school. If you feel the need, reach out and explain your child’s special diet. In my experience, this typically does not offend a party host or hostess, especially if you’ve taken care of the meal yourself.

Cake or Dessert

Oftentimes, the cake is the most sought-after part of the party for kids. After they have just consumed pizza or other convenience food, they can’t wait to wolf down a store-bought cupcake loaded with unrecognizable dyes and flavors, not to mention gluten and sugar.

My trick for the cake part of any party is providing a substitute treat that my kids love to eat.

Our family favorites include Curious George Bars and Tootsie Pops. These products including are sugar-laden, but typically gluten-free. (They may not be labeled as such as they may be produced in a processing plant that also processes wheat–please check with the product manufacturer if your child is particularly sensitive) Other options include homemade Rice Krispy treats or a homemade grain free dessert. Our favorite cookbook and website for delicious homemade grain free treats is from Bill & Hayley at the Food Lover’s Primal Palate. We all love the Coconut Cake with Coconut Cream Cheese Frosting in cupcake form.

Preparation–for the kids

This post wouldn’t be complete without a note about the uniqueness of your kids. After living Paleo for 2 years and attending numerous birthday parties with a 4-year-old and 7-year-old, I can safely what works for us, but I can obviously not predict what will work for your family.

Some kids are more sensitive to eating something different from the other kids. Other issues may be around giving up favorite foods and sacrificing party foods may just be too much, too soon. If you are leading your family on this Paleo journey, only you know what your kids can handle.

That being said, talking to your kids before any non-Paleo outing and setting expectations is a good rule of thumb. Understanding the needs and listening to the concerns of your kids before you are stuck in a no-win situation at party mealtime goes a long way. With Charlotte, we often show her pictures of where we are going, show her the food we have packed for her to eat, and let her know she has her own treat instead of cake or a cupcake that will “give her a tummy ache.” Dana can tolerate more non-Paleo treats than Charlotte can, so we often compromise with her. She’s a smart and sassy 7-year-old and has learned what we can live with as parents and when we put our foot down. She recognizes that this is our lifestyle, but we also try to be sensitive to how she feels eating something different from other kids. If she really wants a cupcake or piece of pizza, we try to discuss it before we arrive so we are all on the same page.

All of this may seem overwhelming and intimidating at first, but it does get better. Try to be as consistent as you can with your kids while still understanding that they are just kids, after all. As you progress with eating more Paleo foods, they realize that eating birthday party foods makes them feel yucky and cranky. Consistency with your food choices also helps your friends and family members understand that you are making conscious health choices for the sake of your child. Over time, they may become more sensitive and accommodating to your dietary needs. Until then, preparation and practice are the keys to success.

A Lesson Learned

Approximately one year ago, we moved to a new home. It was only about 1 mile from our previous home, and the neighborhood was familiar. We were moving only a few blocks from our very close friends. Escrow closed in the first weeks of the new year. Little did we know how much we would learn from the timing of our move.

We visited the home often before we moved, explained as much as we could to both girls to prepare them for the transition. The first few days and weeks went smoothly. No troubles arose until Charlotte’s 3rd birthday at the end of February. As some of you may have experienced, the third birthday is very significant in the world of a special needs child. Under the age of three, the child can (somewhat easily) qualify for Early Start services. This is a state program where the child is evaluated and receives therapies or services, depending on their individual needs. Charlotte had qualified for a center-based program where she was working on controlling her sensory dysregulation impulses in a classroom setting.

She thrived in this environment and loved her school. Three mornings per week, her caring and supportive team of teachers gave both of us what we needed at this point…a community where we felt like we belonged, specific strategies to help with behavior issues at home, and a safe opportunity for Charlotte to practice her emerging, yet delayed, social skills.  Unfortunately, the center-based school and all Early Start services abruptly end on the child’s third birthday.

The next step for continued services is through the school district or medical insurance. We hit an immediate road block with both of these options. Charlotte’s strong language and motor skills kept her from qualifying for anything. We were encouraged to mainstream her. On a cold and dark March morning, I made calls to local preschools. With apprehension and a fear of being rejected, I explained our situation to the newly-opended preschool from the same elementary school that Dana attended. We were welcomed with open arms, yet we were fully aware that this was a mainstream situation and these teachers had completely different training and experience than where we had just come from. I alternated my teacher and parent hats, connecting with and educating the preschool staff, filling them with as much information as I could that was specific to Charlotte’s needs at that time–sensory regulation issues, social delays, repetitive language, and defiant behavior. Despite my best efforts and the wonderfully receptive teaching staff, it was a brutal change for Charlotte.

Looking back, I wonder how we could have been so blind to how these huge changes were going to affect her.  I think we’ve learned so much about her needs from this journey, that experiences like these have begun to guide our choices, our actions, and our parenting. We see it all so clearly now, but at the time she was the teacher and we were the students. She took us back to the beginning of her life to let us know how much she was affected–she stopped sleeping.

Just like in infancy, it was slow at first. Initially, just some trouble going down at bedtime. It would take a few trips into her bedroom to settle her down to sleep. As the nights progressed, there was more resistance going down, and eventually waking a few hours later. This could be as early as 10 or 11pm–just as we were winding down, she would appear wide-eyed in our doorway. At the worst point, she would be awake for several hours in our bed, absolutely refusing to go into her own room.

We have always been a big fan of sleep hygiene, so we were hesitant to start any habits that were going to be difficult to break later on. We knew that letting her learn to sleep in our bed was going to be a battle we would have to fight eventually, so we faced it head-on. We had done “sleep training” with both girls in the early days with success, but we were stuck with knowing that wasn’t going to work for Charlotte. We were confident that she would have cried all night, never allowing herself to go to sleep.

I tried everything I could think of–I stood outside of her door in the dark hallway for hours, trying to wean myself away from her so she could learn to sleep on her own. It was maddening to hear her fall asleep and then wake herself up screaming for me. One night I remember rocking her in the rocking chair for over an hour, only to have her awake and talking to me, instead of getting sleeping or even drowsy.

It was in the middle of one sleepless night that I remembered the sensory inputs that we had done early-on in her diagnosis. With her improved skills and sensory regulation, we hadn’t needed to do any bouncing, brushing, massage, or swinging. The next morning we made an appointment with the Occupational Therapist that we had worked with through Early Start. We paid the $125 for an hour-long session that would teach us to regulate and calm Charlotte’s nervous system to find sleep again.

We brought back all of our old tools and re-learned the importance of sensory input in Charlotte’s life. Without hesitation, we added in joint compressions, brushing therapy, jumping, and swinging to her daily routine. She began to seem like her old self in her new environment. We recognized that sensory regulation was not a ball we could afford to drop again, so we sought out private Occupational Therapy and began to pay for as much as we could afford. In the meantime, I filled a grievance with our insurance company for failure to cover her needs.

After a few weeks of rigorous sensory regulation inputs that made her feel comfortable in her new environments, Charlotte began sleeping better. We have learned so much about how to make her comfortable in her environment and how to help prepare her for sleep. We make sure she gets plenty of exercise in the form of therapy or play throughout the day. We start her bedtime routine early and give her a lot of time to get ready to go to sleep. Rocking, bouncing, massage, and other inputs became part of of her bedtime routine. We limit her naps and keep her bedtime consistent.

Currently she falls asleep easily and then wakes only once to come into our bed. Once there, she falls asleep quickly and sleeps soundly until morning. While it’s certainly not perfect, and we have tried everything from bribery to physically moving her to keep her in her own bed, we accept it as her progress and listen to what she continues to need–safety and security in the form of us.

Sensory inputs and twice weekly Occupational Therapy Sessions are firmly set in our schedule. We learned that this is absolutely crucial to her healthy sleep patterns. Also, with any change in routine or her environment, we prepare Charlotte with words and visuals. We travel less often, knowing how it stresses her system and affects her sleep. We let her be our guide for a busy weekend with friends or a mellow night at home with an early bedtime. We still look for the fine balance between challenging her system with new experiences and stressing her system to the point of dysregulation.

I heard Chris Kresser say on a recent podcast that more melatonin is produced in the gut than in the brain. I nodded in agreement and reflected on the lessons we have learned about sleep, change, regulation, and overall health in this past year. As we heal her gut with the Paleo diet, we will heal her brain and nervous system, and she will find more comfort in her environment with fewer sensory inputs.

In the meantime, we’ll celebrate Charlotte’s 4th birthday this month and all of the lessons we’ve learned together.

A Perfect Storm

A few weeks ago, I was having a conversation with one of Charlotte’s Occupational Therapists about her defiant behavior. I had been noticing a pattern that went something like this: change in her routine due to holiday/illness/schedule, inappropriate sensory seeking behavior, Chad and I jumping in to regulate sensory needs, defiant and uncooperative behavior that diminishes over time. The cycle wrecks havoc on my mental state as I feel relief and exhaustion from the tide of dysregulation just passed and restlessness at the thought of the next swell coming upon us.

As I was talking to her I felt like an old weathered sea captain regaling his tales, vividly describing each cycle as a storm more difficult to bear than the last….with a thoughtful and far-off expression I discuss The Dysregulation of ’11…when we moved from one house to another…….oh, yes, then there was the Starting School Dysregulation last August….that was a really bad one….many nights of bad sleep, impulsive behavior…..and then there was the one just a few months ago when her preschool teacher left….horribly defiant….

She smiles patiently while I carefully explain each harrowing experience after another, all the while, I’m searching for appropriate amounts of validation and sympathy. She finally nods and concludes that this is all “normal”. I really don’t like that word and stare at her as if that answer is completely unacceptable. She squares herself in her chair to look at me and says, “It’s a good thing. The nervous system is resetting itself in preparation for more growth.”

I’ve been carefully considering the therapists words over the last few weeks, as illness stole our family’s sense of routine and order, and we have begun a new and mild cycle of dysregulation. It’s mild in the sense that her sensory issues are more under control, but it has been difficult in the sense that pragmatic speech has been affected. We’re hearing more scripted language, seeing less eye contact, and generally feeling less connected to her. This certainly doesn’t sit well with me as we can’t get Speech Therapy to save our lives, and my anxiety switches begin turning ON as I’m feeling helpless and out of control.

I force myself to come out of the haze of worry and fear and begin to put my concerns into constructive questions. At the next meeting with the therapist, I find myself asking questions like, “now that she’s more sensory regulated, will her patterns of dysregulation look more social and speech related?” Again, she calmly nods Yes. We discuss options for how to regulate her when she seems socially disconnected.

A few days later I’m reading The Way I See It by Temple Grandin on my Kindle and this quote strikes me…

“the best thing a parent (of a newly diagnosed parent can do) can do is to watch their child without preconceived notions or judgments and learn how the child functions, acts, and reacts to his or her world.” (parentheses mine)

I suddenly realize that I can take these two pieces of information and put them together to calm myself and help Charlotte. With careful practice, I begin to observe without my veil of anxiety and worry. Instead of squirming around her nonsense questions and comments, I find her eyes with mine and tell her that she’s not making sense. I coach her into finding better words to explain what she’s thinking and reward her for her efforts. It helps, and she seems relieved that I find this connection with her. She’s excited to tell me more about Max and Ruby’s adventures or what she did at school. She wants to ask what we’re doing tomorrow and when is her birthday. I find my own connection with her and ultimately find my peace of mind.

I tell myself that in giving her the words and safety she needs to communicate, she will experience a new surge of growth. The cycle will complete itself, and the next one will bring new and different challenges. My anxiety continues to rest at bay but these thoughts allow me to breathe a little easier. I remind myself that it just takes time and patience.

I ease up from bracing myself for the impact of the storm and ride the waves as if I’m on the voyage of a lifetime.

Small Victories

As Charlotte’s fourth birthday approaches, I have been reflecting on the starting point of our Paleo journey. It was the day that she turned 2 years old that her dysregulation and stress were unseen by us, but were carefully noticed and pointed out by caring friends. It was at a time when her immune system was so compromised that she was constantly and unsuccessfully battling illness. We began slowly eliminating grains and sugar and watched in astonishment as her health improved.

So, today, nearly 2 years later, I am proud to say that a week after Dana brought a nasty stomach virus into out home, Charlotte has been unfazed. Previous bouts of stomach flu tore through our house despite my best efforts to sanitize and prevent drink sharing. This time I thought about it less. I trusted out bodies to handle the virus, but I knew the strength of the enemy we were dealing with. Without emotion or guilt, I forced everyone to eat clean for 1 week. Sorry, no gluten-free oatmeal or pancakes. Only 1 corn tortilla with your taco. Your burger better be bun-less. Your stomach will thank me. I am relishing our triumph over a microscopic virus that would have beat us in the past.

The next victory is so sweet and tender it’s difficult to put into words…..it’s kind of like yoga when you’ve reached your edge and are experiencing the ecstasy of the stretch…..or it’s like an incredible and breathtaking view at the end of a strenuous hike….maybe it’s more like opening a present that contains a gift you’ve dreamed about, but never spoken of. Truthfully, it’s much more simple….it’s when she locks eyes with me, and I see clearly that the discomfort and pain of her frozen her smile and spirit are beginning to melt away. All that’s left is the beautiful and peaceful face that I remember so vividly on the day she was born.

In many ways I’m meeting her for the first time and experiencing the sweet fruits of preschool independence after all the harrowing and dysregulated years of her toddlerhood.

So I am soaking up these small victories like sweet fruits and using the intensely positive and powerful gift of a mommy’s love and pride to cleanse my own failures and setbacks.

Happy 2nd Paleo Anniversary to us.

As much as I would love to keep this post as is and continue to believe that Charlotte beat the stomach flu, it is sadly not so. The barf began just a few hours after I documented the false triumph…and eerily only about 20 minutes after Chad and I left for dinner with our sick child in the hands of an unsuspecting friend. But somehow, in the midst of the guilt and disbelief and sleep deprivation, I still feel the positive emotions of gratitude for my friend’s selflessness, pride in Dana’s helpful hand, and relief in knowing that despite this particular bout of the nasties, Charlotte is still a strong and healthy kid.

Back on Track

It must be the holidays. I’m feeling pulled in a million different directions, and I seem unable to focus on the day-to-day tasks as more and more stuff to do piles in my head. I was not surprised when Charlotte had a series of meltdowns this morning. We are back in school after the Thanksgiving holiday, and her re-entry into this routine is usually shaky.

A few weeks ago at dinner she announce that she was feeling tired. While this seems like such a simple thing, Chad and I nearly high-fived each other across the table. She has taken the next step of many in the journey toward self-regulating.

That being said, when she announces her need for sleep at 9am on a Tuesday morning, other than canceling our morning plans and driving home and putting her to bed, I wasn’t sure how to help her. I struggled getting her to eat breakfast, get dressed, and attend Dana’s morning drop off assembly. By the time we got to her therapy appointment, she was done. The hand-off to the therapist did not go well. Charlotte spent quite a few minutes on the floor, seeming unable to pull herself to standing and go in for the session.

Thankfully, the ever-so-patient therapist motivated her to stand up and enter the session. Once in the therapy room (where parents do not go), I could hear her continue to sob her tired tears and plead for some item of need. Most days, I take off quickly after the hand-off for my morning walk, but today I waited in agony, stood outside the closed door, and waited until I heard the tears quiet and the session begin.

As I began my walk, my mind was flooded with a million thoughts of guilt and shame that someone else was having to deal with my child in that state and what I had done to get it to that point. All of a sudden I realized that putting myself on a guilt trip was the least healthy thing I could do for myself at that moment, and freeing myself of this guilt suddenly jolted me into reality. In addition to the added stressors around the holidays, I recognized a series of events and decisions that had occurred in my personal life over the last few weeks that have pulled my focus from my family and have forced me to regulate myself. Charlotte’s world was more upside down than it needed to be, due to my choices. I said out loud as I walked, “I am done”, and mentally released all of the excess mental baggage that I had been carrying around while I was trying keep Charlotte regulated at the same time.

It was like a switch flipped for me at that moment, and I realized that the precious amount of energy that I had to get through each day was being wasted. Instead of beating myself up for allowing Charlotte to get to a point of exhaustion and dysregulation, I promised myself that I would get my focus back on what is important and use my energy to help her get through the next few hectic weeks of off-scheduling, holidays, food temptations, and any other unexpected drama that would derail our regulated state.

I am giving myself permission to stay focused on my family when life will want to pull me away again. Nothing is more important than keeping my child comfortable and free from avoidable meltdowns.

Following my own advice–texture aversions

I had just finished posting the information on Recommendations & Advice about knowing which textures your child has aversions to, how to carefully incorporate new foods, and the importance of understanding their likes and dislikes. I had all of this information fresh in my mind, and then….I came down with a cold.

What does that have to do with texture aversions? Well, every Monday I make my girls a hot almond and pecan cereal. (Recipe courtesy of Sarah Fragoso here: almondcereal) I use my Blendtec and grind up apples, cinnamon, nuts, and water. I make a big batch and it usually lasts the first few days of the week. Typically, I run the blender a couple of times to make sure that I grind up any large pieces of nuts or apple.

This Monday I woke up in a NyQuil induced haze and forgot to run the blender twice. This resulted in large pieces of nuts and apples in Charlotte’s cereal that I was not aware of. This must have really grossed her out because yesterday she sat in her chair and stared at her cereal for a very long time before I grog-i-l-y noticed that she wasn’t eating. By this time the cereal was cold, and she was begging me to help her eat it. I prompted her to eat it herself and reminded her that there were no big pieces. She finished it reluctantly, and I didn’t think of it again.

Until, today. When the frustration over the cereal consumed her and defiance and back talk made it’s way into the discussion about finishing her breakfast. When I finally inspected the cereal, I did notice large pieces of textures that she does not tolerate well and used it as a teachable moment to show her how to pull the pieces out of the cereal with her spoon and place them on a napkin.

But….it’s too late…next week when I make hot nut cereal I will have to run the blender twice and to take the extra time to reassure her and show her that it is, indeed, safe to eat.

Healthy Fats

I’m going to start this post with a disclaimer: I am not a doctor. I am not a scientist. I am a mom who has recognized substantial positive change in my child when altering her diet. I am attempting to take my experience and match it to some Paleo based science/research. Some of the information you read in this post may sound contrary to popular opinion. 

Why we think eating fat has benefited Charlotte:

*She has issues with her nervous systemWe know that she has Sensory Modulation Disorder (SMD), which is one of the three primary diagnostic groups of Sensory Processing Disorder. She is over or under responding to sensory stimuli and often is seeking sensory stimulation. Yes.

This group may include a fearful and/or anxious pattern, negative and/or stubborn behaviors, self-absorbed behaviors that are difficult to engage or creative or actively seeking sensation [source]. Definitely. 

All of this dysregulation is going on in her nervous system and prevents her from responding appropriately to sensory input. In our world this looks like things that take a lot of effort for her….trying new food flavors and textures, following directions, getting dressed, knowing when she needs to go potty, etc, etc.

*The nervous system sends signals to cells in different parts of the body and ultimately controls the body’s functions. In addition, “the evolution of a complex nervous system has made it possible for various animal species to have advanced perception abilities such as vision, complex social interactions, rapid coordination of organ systems, and integrated processing of concurrent signals. In humans, the sophistication of the nervous system makes it possible to have language, abstract representation of concepts, transmission of culture, and many other features of human society that would not exist without the human brain.” [source

Essentially, her nervous system makes or breaks her comfort level in the world. How do we make it stronger, faster, better?

*Vitamin B12–is a water-soluble vitamin with a key role in the normal functioning of the brain and nervous system. Vitamin B12 is found in foods that come from animals, including fish and shellfish, meat (especially liver), poultry, eggs, milk, and milk products [source]. Without even realizing it, when we began the Paleo diet and introduced more meat and less grain, we were strengthening her nervous system.

*Energy–I was recently reading a post from Mark Sisson of Marks’ Daily Apple about Mitochondria. Need a refresher of tenth grade biology class? In very simple terms…mitochondria are the power plants of a cell. They generate the chemical energy the body needs for a range of cellular processes. I was definitely intimidated by this subject matter, but I stuck with it and applied it to my observations of Charlotte’s behaviors. It makes sense to me that giving her cells fatty acids from food to use as a source of fuel for the cells, rather than glucose (sugar/carbs) would lead to more energy, increased overall alertness, ultimately leading to increased mental and physical strength and development. More specifics on all of this here.

*And the great news…I’m not alone! I found this great site on Autism Treatment talking about Ketogenic(higher fat/lower carb) diets and how they may help kids with Autism.

But wait…there’s more…

*Essential Fatty Acids–When we first started on the Paleo diet, we helped our kids kick their sugar and carb addictions with delicious fruit smoothies. We loaded up our Blendtec blender with fresh fruit, frozen strawberries and blueberries, and even got crazy and added veggies like avocado and spinach. It’s funny now to remember that Chad and I had to both stand in front of the blender and secretly add these ingredients the girls were so terrified of at the time. We also secretly added Cod Liver Oil, which is basically Omega 3 in liquid form with Essential Fatty Acids DHA and EPA. All of the other flavors of the smoothie masked any fishy taste from the oil. Again, it’s no surprise that we saw changes right after starting this regime. Omega-3s aid circulation by naturally thinning the blood, fight systemic inflammation, support brain function and ease symptoms of depression, anxiety and even ADHD [source]. Currently, we try to serve fish at home 1-2 times per week to provide these essential fats in the form of food. If we miss a week, I’ll give them a glass of orange juice (a special treat) and add a 1/2 tsp of Cod Liver Oil to each drink–and I don’t have to hide it anymore.

*The fat in animal protein has become an essential part of Charlotte’s diet. We have no qualms sending bacon with her to preschool as her snack and making sure she eats all of her skirt steak before giving her more sweet potatoes. I’m sharing this with you because I only wish I had known this sooner. See Our Story for our a detailed account of how her sleep issues shortly after birth were a clear sign that Charlotte need more fat in her diet. Conventional Wisdom has scared us away from natural fats that our ancestors have been eating for thousands of years. It’s only in recent history that we have shifted away from this powerful energy source and so many brain based issues have arisen. 

*One final note on fat–the Paleo diet recommends pastured-raised 100% grass-fed beef as the best source of animal protein and fat. Grass fed beef contains Omega 3s (discussed above) and Conjugated Linoleic Acid, which is another good for you naturally occurring fat. Grain fed beef gets a bad rap in the Paleo Community, mostly because the cattle are fed grain/soy/corn in a feed lot to fatten them for tastier consumption. It makes perfect sense that grain fed beef goes against what Paleo people strive to consume. However, it can be expensive and hard to find. As you begin your Paleo journey, you may be encouraged to learn that we have only recently been able to acquire grass-fed beef and feed it to Charlotte. All of the meat that she thrived on in our earlier Paleo days was Costco-bought, grain fed. If you are holding out for cheaper or more accessible grass-fed beef, grain fed is an acceptable substitute and did our family right for a short time.