Feel Your Food

Emma is almost two and a half years old, and she is a picky eater. She refuses to try any foods apart from plain pasta, hard cheese and chicken nuggets. She doesn’t like getting her hands dirty and refuses to go barefoot on sand and grass. Her mother describes her as a strong-willed toddler who struggles with changes in routine. She has frequent meltdowns that often last longer and are more severe towards the end of the day or when they are out and about as a family.

Picky eating is a complex condition which can have many and sometimes multiple reasons for it.  Studies have found that paediatric feeding difficulties are caused by a combination of medical, structural, metabolic, developmental, sensory, behavioural and psychosocial components. There is a very definite link between picky eating and sensory sensitivity, and this is what we will focus on in this blog.

How do I know whether sensory sensitivity plays a role in my child’s picky eating?

As an occupational therapists at the Success Therapy Centre, we ask the following questions to determine if sensory sensitivity contributes to your child’s food aversion:

  • Does your child gag/ spit out/ vomit at the sight, smell, touch or taste of a specific food?
  • Do they limit themselves to only eating certain food textures? Only crunchy foods? Only soft foods? Only bland foods?
  • Do they avoid certain food textures, e.g. lumps in yoghurt, anything slimy (banana/ mango/ papaya).
  • Do they avoid foods with strong smells, e.g. broccoli/ fish/ banana?
  • Do they become distressed when forced to continue eating food they initially had an adverse reaction to?
  • Do they avoid getting their hands messy, e.g. while doing crafts/ playing in the sand?
  • Are they sensitive to clothing textures, e.g. labels/ wearing knitted jerseys/scarves or hats?
  • Are they sensitive to bright lights?
  • Are they sensitive to loud noises, e.g. hold their hands over their ears to protect them from sound / ask for the television or radio to be turned down?
  • Are they easily overwhelmed/ meltdown in multi-sensory environments such as shopping malls or at birthday parties?

If you have answered yes to the majority of these questions, there is a significant likelihood that sensory sensitivity plays a role in your child’s picky eating.  And, although there is no shortcut to broadening your child’s food repertoire, here are the TOP 5 secret sensory strategies that can help.

Top 5 secret sensory strategies to help picky eaters

1. Tactile play

On a sensory level, the tactile input we receive through our mouths and hands are very closely related.  This is one of the reasons babies explore objects with their mouths. Just like we can get a lot of sensory information from touching something with our hands, we can get similar information by using our mouths. Using tactile play is one of the secrets occupational therapists use when working with picky eaters.  We can work on eating without having food around- bonus! 

The trick is to start slowly and to give your child a lot of control over the situation.  Allow them to decide how long they want to play, if they’re going to play using their hands or a scoop/ spoon or stick.  Always have something ready on which they can wipe their hands and let them wash their hands as whenever they want to.  Grade the tactile input by starting with dry sensory bins and moving to more sticky and eventually gooey wet textures.

2. Vibrating toothbrush or finger hood toothbrush

Using vibration and deep pressure is another helpful trick to try with picky eaters. Even children who are easily irritated by light touch can often tolerate vibration and deep pressure. A vibrating toothbrush is a great way to help desensitize the mouth, and it can even be used before a meal (without toothpaste) to prep the mouth for feeding. Similarly, you can use a silicone finger hood with a younger child to provide them with some deep pressure through the gums and teeth to help them tolerate texture. Again, never force any of this onto your child. Instead, speak to an occupational therapist if your child is unable to tolerate these inputs.

3. Play with food

The secret of playing with food to assist picky eaters has been out for a while, and with good reason- it works! Here are a few fun ideas to try.  Remember the aim is play, eating is a bonus, and there should be no expectation to do so.

  • Try cut food into fun shapes
  • Build pictures (e.g. faces or animals).
  • Make cereal necklaces.

4. Expose them to new foods frequently

I remember how shocked I was when I first heard that a sensitive child might need 10 to 20 times of exposure to the same food before they might start tolerating it. It helps to remember that whenever a picky eater does something new with food, it is as good as eating it. Think about grading the exposure to a new food, over days and sometimes weeks, like this:

  • Look (have it on your plate).
  • Touch (even just to move in into the ‘no, thank you bowl’), hold, touch the face with the food, smell it.
  • Kiss (touch lips to food), hold the food between teeth, take a small bite, spit it out, eat it.  

5. Use heavy work and deep tactile pressure before mealtimes

Heavy work and deep tactile pressure have a general calming impact on our nervous systems, and it assists in putting us into a calm and regulated state. Just think about getting a lovely long deep hug from your partner or going for a massage.  In the same way, we can use this to help prime our Picky Eaters before mealtimes.  Activities that work well (to just name a few) include:

  • Jumping on a mini-trampoline.
  • Climb on the jungle gym outside.
  • Rolling a large ball over your child’s back, pretending to’squash’ them into a pizza or pancake.

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