When you dine with a feeding challenged child, you learn to cope with an incredible amount of stress at the table. That’s not to say I’m always good at this coping thing. It’s not easy watching your underweight child push his plate away in horror, or your sensory challenged child gag on gentle textures or vomit from the overwhelming aromas of nearby food. Every parent want their kids to eat healthy. We just want our kids to eat. Period.
There’s lots of advice out there. Everything from let him starve to praise and reward her with stickers. I guess it works for some kids. I know it doesn’t work for my anxiety-ridden, post-trauma, food neophobic son. These suggestions all employ an element of pressure that he translates as “If I don’t take a bite, something bad will happen.” I just don’t believe that a child who is already distressed about what they are expected to eat should have anxiety added to their plate.
So what is a stressed out and very concerned parent to do? How do we get our food neophobic and/or sensory challenged children to try new foods and add to the short list of items on their limited menu? Pediatric occupational therapist, Marsha Dunn Klein, founder of Mealtime Notions, works with families and their children who are fed via supplemental tube feeding. She suggests that as parents, we take a step back and redefine what we mean by “try something new”.
Reprinted from www.mealtimenotions.com:
Many children who have sensory challenges are very cautious about trying new foods. We, as the grown ups in their lives, often find ourselves saying “just try it”…… or “try this food taste, or this food texture.” Often very cautious children reject the food by turning away, pushing it away, gagging, crying or even vomiting. It becomes unpleasant for the child and the grown up!
Children who have limited experiences with foods, such as children who are fed by tube, can be worried about new food tastes and textures. Many times the limited experiences they have had have been scary, negative, or pressured. We want children to learn to eat orally, and when we say just “try it” we often mean just try a mouthful and…swallow it!” For children who are really cautious, worried or inexperienced with new foods, taking a “mouthful” may be just plain too scary…too much! Children do need to have opportunities to interact with food, but we may need to re-define what we mean by “try it”!
“Try it” may need to include just being in the same room as the food, or being at the same mealtime dining table as the food. Perhaps trying it may just be smelling it! For many children that is the starting place to be celebrated. Bringing the food near the nose to smell it can help the child get “closer” to the flavor. The smell can help the child get used to the taste “from a distance”.
“Try it” can mean touch it. Beginning touches may need to be with a spoon, or toy, but not yet with fingers. Some children need time to work up to touching with finger tips or hands! It may take a while for very cautious child to touch different textures.
Once a child is comfortable holding a food, she can hand it to someone else, or feed it to someone else. The very process of handing a food to someone else can be a distraction from a focus only on eating the food. The focus can be on the social and imitative process where the person being fed enthusiastically accepts the food gift. The textures the child feeds can be from wet to dry and lots of textures in between. And…….there is a beginning and an end to the holding. The child picks it up, holds it, gives it to someone else and is done. It is often less scary to handle a new or uncomfortable food texture when the child understands just how long she will need to have it in her hand. A beginning……. then an end. Gradually she can hold it for longer periods of time while she feeds Mom who is sitting across the room. Food can be served to others, fed to siblings, wrapped for a picnic, or put in a lunch box, or your child can become the little chef who helps make the salad, or put ingredients in a cake.
Children can bring the food to the lips to “try it” or they may let parents or siblings bring the food toward their face to “kiss” with it on the lips. Tasting from the lips gives the child a distance from which to try it. The child can decide to bring the flavor into the mouth and on the tongue, or can leave it only on the lips or wipe it off. The flavor, is closer to the mouth than just touching it. Many foods can be used as food “lipsticks” or “chapstick” where the taste is put on the lips. The child can lick it off the lips or smack lips as they are comfortable and may have fun looking at themselves in the mirror.
Licking the food is another way to “try it”. Licking food requires a conscious effort to move the flavor past the lips and ON the tongue. Licking can give the child the opportunity to not only get the taste on the tongue, but also can leave a little food, wet or dry, liquid, puree, or crumbs on the tongue.
“Try it” can be putting a food in the mouth and then spitting it out….or putting it in and actually interacting with it with the tongue and cheeks and lips for swallowing. Some children enjoy the idea of putting food in their mouth, and then spitting it out in different containers. It becomes an “engineering challenge” rather than a tasting problem.
By re-defining “try it” we take some of the pressure off the child, and ourselves and we can begin to see forward progress toward more food interaction. Children can become comfortable with food tasting and begin to learn about their own taste and texture preferences….on their terms, at their own pace without PRESSURE to eat quantities. If we merely count bites that are taken and swallowed, we may become quite frustrated along with the child. When we only count bites eaten, it somehow seems to highlight the larger looming number of bites NOT eaten . When we redefine “Try it” we celebrate the little steps each child makes in the direction of greater food exploration and help the child build the confidence needed to venture into a world where others eat by mouth rather than tube!”
Reprinted with permission from Marsha Dunn Klein, MEd, OTR/L
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