I have attempted to write this article hundreds of times. I never knew the right way to approach it. Do I place blame? Do I attempt to persuade? Do I share frightening facts? I decided to share our story because I am not a scientist. I am not a researcher. I am not a chemist. I am not a pharmacist. I am not a doctor. I am a mom. A mom who has struggled and researched and trialed and cried and screamed and felt like a failure. I am a mom with a simple wish: that our story might help another family struggling, and that manufacturers of consumable products might come to understand.
I became a mom in the summer of 2012. It was blazing hot every day for months. I was miserable and swollen, but excited to meet my little boy. Finally, on a hot August afternoon, after several hours of labor, he was here. He was perfect. This little boy, who made me a mama, became the most important thing in my life. And like any first time mama, I over-analyzed. I googled. I worried. Was he eating enough? Was he pooping enough? Did I produce enough milk? My friends and family told me to relax. I was told that babies cry and I should calm down. I was told that my son was fussy because I was too anxious, that he could tell that I was nervous so he was nervous. I experienced blame and guilt because I couldn’t get my son to stop crying. He was curled up in a little ball screaming for hours. He wouldn’t eat. When he did, he spit up everything almost immediately. He was starving. He was hurting.
Finally, my pediatrician suggested we trial an allergy-friendly formula (and by that I mean we trialed them all). I am not sure if we ever found one that worked or if his little digestive system just matured. His reflux persisted for over a year. His pain-filled screams became less frequent.
This was our first hint that there was a correlation between what he was eating and how he was feeling.
As he entered into the toddler phase, we began to see a sweet, caring, brilliant little person. However, we still felt like we were constantly walking on egg-shells because he could switch to a furious, hyper, absolutely frustrating little person without warning. We were told he’s just “at that age”, that it was time to introduce time out, or that we needed more boundaries. I agree there were definitely toddler-tantrums, and he was developmentally doing what he was supposed to do. However, there was something else.
At this time we were blessed with another little baby boy. Our first was 16 months when our second was born. This also caused people to speculate and project personal feelings on our situation. We were told that our firstborn was acting out because he was jealous. We were told that we were not giving our oldest enough attention. We were told that we were being selfish for having another baby and taking time away from our oldest. More guilt. More blame.
Something wasn’t right
Our oldest did not sleep through the night until he was over two years old. We tried everything. Ev-er-y-thing. One week, we were trying the cry it out method. He slept standing up all night for a week. He would stand in his crib and scream until he could no longer stay awake. He would fall asleep and fall over. Then, he’d stand up and scream again. We were told that he was strong-willed, that we should just let him sleep with us, that we were over-reacting.
He started to grow and learn. He was no longer a toddler but a little boy. And so was his little brother who shocked us with how easy he was to care for. His little brother ate and slept and pooped and listened as well as a toddler should. Every mother compares their children even if they say they do not. My boys could not be more different. My second son helped us realize that there may be something wrong with our oldest.
Finally, around the time our third child was born, we sought out help. Our oldest was four years old when his little sister was born. He never sat still. He had never been able to make it through an entire meal without getting out of his chair. While he wasn’t waking in the middle of the night, he did not nap or sleep well at all.
Rage and pain
Bouts of rage and violence would come out of nowhere. He tried to push me down the stairs. He threatened me and the other children, locked me out of the house, and stabbed a screwdriver through multiple layers of drywall. He took a hammer and pounded holes in his windowsill. Other times, he would become so agitated that he would run as fast and hard as he could into the walls. He would tell me, “I just need to run, crash, boom.” He started running into me and his brother and he began getting into physical fights at playgrounds and play dates.
This didn’t happen all the time. We would have hours, days, weeks where our sweet, caring, brilliant little boy would be back. Then, out of nowhere he was someone completely different. His entire personality and demeanor changed. And he was unaware of it. He would not remember some of the things he did in his state of rage.
Seeking medical advice
I spoke with his pediatrician. She suggested behavioral therapy and gave him an informal diagnosis of ADHD. He was assessed for ADHD, autism, behavior disorder, anxiety, and a gamete of other things. All assessments came back negative. He did not qualify for any formal diagnosis. His behavior therapist gave us suggestion after suggestion. We tried everything. We saw minor improvements.
I confided in a friend who’s daughter has a formal diagnosis of ADHD. She suggested that I look into modifying his diet. I scoffed at the idea but got the information. She recommended an elimination diet. She said it had done wonders for her daughter. Essentially, the premise behind the diet is to eliminate any artificial food dyes, preservatives, and fragrances. Research has shown links between these chemicals and behavioral issues in children. With this specific diet, you pay a yearly fee and receive a book of stores, restaurants, brands, and specific foods that have removed these chemicals.
I ran the idea by my husband, concerned with the yearly fee. He simply said, “I would pay 1000 if it would bring back our son.” I was sold. We registered and began stage 1. Our son was hesitant and a little resistance, mostly because he did not understand why he was being asked to restrict his diet. However, within two weeks our son was back. It was miraculous. We couldn’t believe the difference. We no longer needed behavior therapy. We no longer needed to monitor our son constantly. Our sweet, caring, brilliant boy was back and I cannot thank my friend enough for the recommendation.
Family members were skeptical
We were told we were over-reacting. We were told that we were denying our son some of the best parts of life by denying him artificially colors/flavored foods. We were told again that we just needed more follow-through, more boundaries, more discipline. Family members tried to sneak him prohibited candy because of his mean parents.
I realize that most families think do not have to think about the foods they are feeding their children. I realize that people get anaphylactic reactions to foods, but do not understand behavioral reactions to food dyes and preservatives. However, our family deals with it daily. I know that marshmallows contain blue food dye to make them white. I know that Chic-fil-a puts at least two kinds of food dyes into their chicken sandwich. I know that when my son gets an ear infection that the pharmacy will always give him an antibiotic dyed pink with Red 40 dye unless I order it special. I know that there are several food dyes in most baby shampoo. I know that plain vanilla yogurt and yellow cheese contains annatto which is supposed to be a natural food dye, but actually causes some of my son’s worst reactions. I know that organic does not always mean dye free or preservative free. I know that TBHQ may help preserve foods but makes my son so agitated and anxious that he could give himself a concussion. I know these things because I have to not because I want to.
So here is my main reason for writing this article. I want to say thank you to all the companies who understand my family. Thank you for taking these chemicals out of your food. Thank you for realizing that we don’t care if your oranges are bright orange (yes, oranges…like fresh oranges…are dyed orange to look more like a “real” orange). Thank you for helping me to feed my son healthy and natural foods. Thank you for truly caring about my family’s health.
And to those who still add food dyes, preservatives, fragrances, and all those other chemicals to their foods/soaps/medicines/shampoos/etc, no hard feelings. You are doing what you think you need to do to turn a profit. You are trying to make your products more appealing to children. I get it. But just so you know, children actually prefers food that tastes like real food.
Have you struggled to find dye-free food for your family? Let us know in the comments.