Have you ever questioned if your child is just being a picky eater? Do you have to prepare multiple meals in order to have everyone in your family eat? Have you ever felt frustrated or overwhelmed that your child’s friends will eat anything, while your child refuses to eat certain foods or demonstrates brand loyalty preferences? You are not alone. And while it may just look like behavior, there may actually be other concerns that are causing your child to gag, spit out, or refuse foods. What is actually happening, and does feeding therapy help?
Both speech and occupational therapists can address feeding and eating concerns, and often work together to assess the physical, emotional, behavioral, sensory, and social skills and habits that are involved with feeding and eating daily routines. Feeding therapy involves a speech therapist or occupational therapist that looks at the various steps required for preparing and completing feeding and eating. Age, developmental milestones, allergies, food sensitivities, gross and fine motor skills, self-feeding skills, oral motor skills, sensory motor skills, and typical feeding patterns, preferences, prior experience, and routines are all important factors that are analyzed by the therapist to determine and differentiate between anticipated, normal development patterns compared to unanticipated patterns of behavior that may be a concern for your infant or child.
Speech and occupational therapists are knowledgeable and well-trained on the typical developmental milestones from birth throughout adulthood, with specialized training and understanding of the incremental changes that occur from infancy to childhood. Many children that demonstrate habits of a picky eater often have difficulty managing feeding on certain types of foods based on taste, texture, size, and the way the food is broken down and manipulated in their mouths before they ever even swallow. Oral motor skills, meaning the way the muscles of the mouth and tongue work together to break down foods and swallow, require a high level of coordination, strength, and endurance that typically develops without someone ever thinking about this development occurring. However, for many picky eaters, there is often an aspect regarding feeding that they find difficult to manage, whether it is taste, texture, the size, or how it moves inside their mouths. When this break down occurs, our children refuse foods, and we often unintentionally reinforce this behavior by pressuring our children to eat and accept these foods.
So, what can we do if we cannot get our children to eat certain foods, and when we insist that they do they gag or refuse? Well, what do our children do best? Play! Yes, play is the most natural way to learn and try out new skills and reinforce desired behaviors! Here are a few tips to try with your picky eater!
- Use your fingers. Try finger painting with sauces, puddings, jello. Allow your child to get messy and feel comfortable around new foods.
- Through play, touch and explore the food. Poke. Kiss. Lick. Bite. If the child is uncertain he is ready to chew, let the child spit the food out.
- Slowly encourage more exploration before letting the child refuse the food.
- Provide a spot for the child to remove the uncertain food to know he or she is done with it. In therapy, we provide a cup or bowl and deem it the “all done” bowl.
- Use positive reinforcement to encourage and facilitate participation in food exploration.
- If the child refuses to sit at the table, start with food and sensory play on the floor, building trust to gain access to participating, and eventually eating, at the table.
While these are general tips and ideas for anyone to try with a child that may be a picky eater, there are many other issues that may occur that are causing your child to be unable to tolerate eating certain types of foods. If you or a loved one has concerns regarding a child’s ability to eat, it is best to reach out to your pediatrician to discuss concerns related to feeding and eating. Physicians often request referrals to specialists to help address concerns related to feeding and eating, including dietitians, nutritionists, speech therapists, and occupational therapists. If you are a reader and have any questions regarding this blog, please contact us via e-mail at [email protected] today!