When evaluating new clients, I often hear kids described as “picky eaters” or mealtimes that sound like a battle zone. Feeding difficulties can be a challenging and frustrating experience for both children and parents. Children with feeding difficulties may have trouble swallowing, chewing, using utensils, managing appropriate amounts of food in their mouth, gaining weight, and they may also have sensory issues that make eating certain foods difficult or unpleasant. As a parent, it can be tough to know how to help your child overcome these challenges and establish healthy feeding habits.
One option is to seek out feeding therapy with a speech-language pathologist or occupational therapist. However, there are also a number of techniques that parents can try at home to help their child with feeding difficulties. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Create a relaxed, fun, stress-free environment: Children with feeding difficulties may become anxious or agitated when it comes time to eat. To create a more calming atmosphere, try to minimize distractions, such as loud noises or bright lights, and encourage your child to take breaks if they become overwhelmed.
- Parent’s choice child’s choice: Children that have a history of difficulties at mealtime often seek to control all aspects of mealtime. The one aspect of mealtime that parents can and should continue to control is what is on the plate. It is then all up to the child to determine what and how much they would like to eat.
- Consistently present new/non-preferred foods: Children with feeding difficulties may be hesitant to try new foods, especially if they have had negative experiences with them in the past. To help your child overcome this fear, start by presenting a new or non- preferred food in each meal along with two other foods that are their “safe” foods, or those that they already consistently eat. By pairing new foods with familiar, well-liked foods, they can feel safe to explore, knowing that they have other food for
- Make mealtimes fun with the goal to explore: Children that have a history of difficulties at mealtime often associate new foods with stress, anxiety, and a pressure to eat something they don’t want too. Therefore, the goal of introducing a new food is to explore it, not necessarily eat it. We can explore foods by having fun and playing games using our senses: smelling, touching, describing (crunchy, salty, sweet, sticky, sour, etc), licking, and breaking it apart to hear if it makes sounds, changing the way the food looks or is presented (in a different bowl or cooked differently). By making these new foods more fun and familiar to the child, they will be more likely to eat it without any external
- Encourage self-feeding: Children with feeding difficulties may benefit from the opportunity to feed This will give them the control over what and how much they eat of each food. It also helps develop fine motor skills and independence in self-feeding. To encourage self-feeding, provide your child with appropriate utensils, such as a fork or spoon, and encourage them to feed themselves as much as possible. You can do this by modeling, playing with utensils outside of mealtimes to practice these skills, or using multiple utensils at once so you can load one, while giving the other to the child. You can also try using finger foods, such as small pieces of fruit or cheese, to help your child practice picking up and eating food.
- Seek out additional support: If you are having trouble managing your child’s feeding difficulties at home, don’t hesitate to seek out additional support. A speech-language pathologist or occupational therapist can help you develop a plan to address your child’s specific needs and provide guidance on how to make mealtime more successful.
Managing a child with feeding difficulties can be a challenging and time-consuming task, but with patience, persistence, and the right strategies, it is possible to help your child overcome their feeding challenges and establish healthy eating habits. If you have concerns about your child’s feeding abilities, don’t hesitate to speak with your child’s healthcare provider or a feeding specialist for additional support and guidance.