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What Parents Need to Know About Sensory Feeding Disorders

When your child will only eat a limited number of foods (and those foods are things like chicken nuggets or Goldfish crackers), it can feel like you’re failing. Our job as parents and caregivers is to nourish our children and help them grow. But how can we do that if they won’t even try what’s on their plate?

First, know that you are not failing. In many cases, a case of “picky eating” is more complex than it might seem. Some feeding problems are rooted in sensory issues. It helps to learn more about sensory food aversion and what your child may be feeling at mealtimes. In many cases, sensory feeding therapy can lift some of this stress and help your child try more foods. 

What is a sensory-based feeding disorder?

A sensory feeding disorder, also known as sensory food aversion, is diagnosed when a child has difficulty eating because of sensitivities to the smell, look, texture, taste, and/or sound of foods. These sensory sensitivities lead to big challenges with feeding, and they often limit the foods a child will eat. This can affect the child’s nutritional intake and growth. 

Symptoms of sensory food aversion in children may include:

  • Selective eating, which means limiting their diet to a narrow range of preferred textures, tastes, colors, or even brands

  • Avoiding certain foods, food textures, or entire food groups, which can affect their overall nutritional intake

  • Being very sensitive to the sensory aspects of food, such as smells, tastes, temperatures, or textures

  • Mealtime anxiety or distress 

  • Slow or poor weight gain (if feeding challenges persist) 

A child with a sensory feeding disorder may feel nervous or afraid about new foods. They often become upset when non-preferred food is placed near them. They may gag, refuse to eat, or run away from the table.

Understanding sensory food aversion

Children with sensory issues based on food are often described by their caregivers as anxious, worried, or stressed. Mealtime can be extremely difficult for them.

This is different from a typical “picky eating” toddler stage. The worry that these children are feeling is real. Their behaviors are their way of communicating how they feel.

The worry that these children are feeling is real. Their behaviors are their way of communicating.

It’s important for parents and caregivers to know that their child did not choose to be like this. While it might not seem logical to us as adults, these fears are real and personal to these children, and we need to believe them. (If you have a moment, head over to this website and read the grasshopper story. Feeding therapists often recommend this story to families to help them better understand feeding challenges.)

How to help your child with sensory feeding problems

It can be hard to know how to help your child eat more types of food and expand their diet. Many caregivers might try sneaking something new into their child’s food to see if they notice. We have the best intentions and just want our kids to get the nutrition they need. But doing this can backfire, causing a child who is already worried about food to become more hypervigilant. They watch for sensory surprises and constantly worry about food, making mealtimes less enjoyable–and ultimately making them less likely to try new things.

Many caregivers also try a reward system. They might offer a new toy or extra screen time when the child tries a new food. But the truth is, pressuring a child to eat will have little positive impact on their eating habits. The goal is to build “intrinsic motivation.” This means the child feels good about eating and eats because they want to.

Pressuring a child to eat will have little positive impact on their eating habits.

If you’ve tried these common tactics, don’t feel bad. As you learn more about sensory feeding disorders, you’ll be empowered to support your child in new ways. We know caregivers come from a place of love and concern about their child’s health. Sensory food aversion isn’t an easy thing to deal with, and it can make mealtimes extremely stressful. On top of that, your friends and family just don’t get it. They try to offer advice, but they’re not telling you anything you already didn’t know.

So what can you do?

The goals of sensory feeding therapy for children

There are speech-language pathologists who specialize in treating children with sensory feeding disorders. Your child’s feeding therapist will start where your child is comfortable, then help them take small steps toward expanding their food acceptance, without causing anxiety. Starting with what’s safe, comfortable, and familiar helps to build trust, which is a critical part of success in feeding therapy.

One of the most important goals of sensory feeding therapy is to create peaceful mealtimes, with fewer battles! This will lay the foundation for your child to begin accepting new foods into their diet. Your feeding therapist will help your child understand that change can happen at any time, but when it does, the child will be OK. This is done by:

  • Setting expectations

  • Establishing routines

  • Avoiding pressure or judgment on the child 

  • Exposing the child to new foods (by watching someone else eat it, passing the food to someone else, etc.)

The feeding therapist will also work with your child to build lifelong skills around eating. Some of these skills include:

  • Eating at the table where other people are eating food the child is not

  • Staying at the table (not running away or yelling “yuck!”)

  • Learning alternative ways to communicate (for example, instead of throwing unwanted food, putting it in a bowl)

What else can parents do about sensory-based feeding issues?

Creating a positive environment at home can make a huge difference! Try these tips:

  • Encourage your child. Say things like, “I know this is hard for you, but I’m here to help.” 

  • Celebrate your child’s successes, even the little ones!

  • Use positive language. Don’t make negative comments about food or your child's ability to eat.

  • Focus on your child’s strengths.

Sensory feeding disorders are complex. Specific interventions and sensory feeding therapy are often needed to achieve success. Working with a speech pathologist who specializes in feeding can help families understand their child’s needs and learn how to help them develop a healthier relationship with food.

If you’d like to ask questions or learn more about feeding therapy, schedule a free phone consultation with an Expressable speech therapist. We’d be happy to talk with you.

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