It’s really no wonder that most of us love to eat. Eating is a fabulous multisensory experience. But if your child has sensory processing disorder, meal time can be anything but fun.
What many people who enjoy eating don’t realize is what an ordeal eating really is. It is the only task of human functioning that uses all organ systems, and one swallow uses no less than 26 muscles to complete. In addition, eating requires coordination of all eight sensory systems.
When a child over- or under-registers smells, tastes, textures or even the sight of certain foods— he might refuse to eat all but a small number of “safe” foods each day. Parents of toddlers are used to dealing with picky eaters, but kids with sensory processing disorder often eat so little in both amount and variety that nutrition becomes a very real issue. And unlike typical children who usually grow out of their picky ways, without intervention, kids with SPD have a tendency to hold tight to their food preferences.
Children with these kinds of feeding issues should be referred to an occupational therapist or feeding specialist, but in the meantime here are a few things parents can try to encourage a wider variety of food at meal and snack time:
Let your babies play with their food ... and your toddlers and preschoolers, too. Young children learn so much about eating through all of their sensory systems. When they touch, squeeze, lick, smear, smell, throw, smoosh, and spit, they are learning about eating and about themselves. Let them make a mess. Get a mat if it drives you crazy. Or, better yet, a labrador retriever.
Engage your older child in food play, too. Paint with yogurt, make a train out of crackers, stack cheese slices—incorporating food into no-pressure play time will expose your child to textures and smells without the challenge of eating.
Take things slow. Actually chewing and swallowing food is at the top of the ladder and some children need to start at the bottom and climb every rung. If your child won’t even touch a food item, start with her allowing it to be on her plate (or even on the table). Work up to touch, then kissing it (a nonthreatening way to taste a new food item) and eventually to eating it.
Stressing that some foods are good and some are bad is only going to add to a child’s feeding difficulties.
Let them graze. Three squares a day might work for you and me, but most children need smaller, more frequent meals—at least three meals and two snacks. Don’t let a need for routine cause a missed opportunity for trying a new food.
Don’t count out junk food. This might be a controversial suggestion. If you’ve read the book Salt, Sugar, Fat, then you know that there is a science to those junky snacks we all love to hate. They are loaded with the perfect combination of salt, sugar and fat, and are usually a wonderful sensory experience. Sometimes, they are the only first food that a poor eater will try and that’s OK. Stressing that some foods are good and some are bad is only going to add to a child’s feeding difficulties.
Consider a divided plate. Eating is challenging enough without mixing foods together, so those plastic divided plates are a cheap and easy solution. Try serving two foods your child will eat and two that are a challenge at meal time.
I recommend that every parent read Ellyn Satter’s Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family to prevent general picky eating, but can’t stress enough that if you feel your child has a feeding disorder, please contact a professional for help.
Do you have any suggestions for parents struggling with this issue? Please leave them in the comments below.