From the very beginning of Your Kid’s Table, I have always wanted to help parents better understand sensory processing and anything related to kids and eating. And, over the last few years, I have answered many comments and discussed at length with many parents how the two things are related. While I covered the connection in “When Has Picky Eating Gone Too Far”, I wanted to dedicate a post to the topic specifically, so that parents could really wrap their head around if sensory processing is playing a role in their child’s picky eating and, perhaps more importantly, what they can do help.
What does sensory processing have to do with picky eating? Everything, actually. Sensory processing is our ability to interpret smells, tastes, sounds, touches, sights, and movement from our environment. Although most of us process this information in similar ways, it is completely unique to every individual, to every child. We are bombarded all day long with various sensory input, and eating, which many of us do 5 or 6 times a day, is a huge sensory experience that most of us take for granted. As adults, we have been quite desensitized to the textures, flavors, and smells of food, but many of our kids have not. In the first few years of life, mealtimes are all about processing the sensory input they are receiving from various foods. Often when kids display picky eating, especially problem feeders/extreme picky eaters, the touch, taste, or smell of a food is being processed in their brain as dis-pleasurable in some way. And, by dis-pleasurable, I mean down-right uncomfortable. Think of something that makes you shutter… nails on chalkboard or touching a slug? That feeling that you have may be just as extreme as an orange for your child. How your child responds to foods, may at least in part, be simply neurological. I hope that this information helps you as the parent depersonalize the refused dinners, at least at little, anyways!
Here’s the good news, children’s brains are extremely plastic. Meaning they are able to easily learn new things. When a child learns something new or experiences something differently, a new connection is made in their brain. The more they have that same experience, the stronger that connection gets, and then they are able to react differently than they had previously because their brain is using a new connection to process the information. Are you following me here? Let me say it another way, just to make my point. Let’s say that Isaac gags and shutters every time he touches chicken, but one day he helps his mom make chicken in a different way. And, they cut it into small pieces and serve it with a fun dip in a cool little ramekin. And, his mom pretends the chicken is little baby dinosaurs jumping into a pond of ketchup. Then, Isaac is really motivated and relaxed (because he isn’t being pressured), so he picks up his “little baby dinosaurs” and sends them soaring into his dip without a hint of a shutter or gag. Guess what, his brain just made a new connection, and now that mom has a starting point to build from!
While I’ve mostly been providing examples that illustrate a child who is sensitive to textures because the brain is over processing the input, it is also entirely possible that your child may be undersensitive to sensory input. Think of sensory processing as a spectrum with being sensitive or defensive to input (texture, smell, etc.) at one end and seeking input at the other end with a whole lot of variability in the middle. Not processing input well can also cause picky eating because children may not feel certain soft textures in their mouth well (as if the sensation is dulled), and thus avoid them. These kids in particular will often prefer crunchy foods, seemingly spit out soft foods, or over-stuff their mouths to try and “feel” the food.
Sensory processing difficulties affect certain groups of children more than other’s, and I’m going to list them here. However, having sensory processing difficulties DOES NOT mean that you child has one of these diagnoses. I have seen many children that benefit from specialized therapeutic intervention and then go onto to have little interruption in their lives. I am sharing this here with your because if your child has one of these diagnoses and has eating difficulties, it is very likely that sensory processing is at least part of the picture.
- Sensory Processing Disorder (Note that many health care providers acknowledge this diagnosis, but it is not in the current version of the DSM, which means some insurances providers will not accept this as a reason to justify therapy).
- Children Born Prematurely (The sensory system is one of the last to develop in utero, which is why sensory processing difficulties are common. However, this is not a rule. Many preemies display no difficulties in this area.)
- Autism Spectrum Disorder
- Down Syndrome
- Children Adopted from Orphanages in Eastern European Countries or Russia
Sensory Red Flags
If you child has most or all of the behaviors here, it is possible that sensory processing may be part of the underlying reason your child is selective about their food choices. You will notice some extremes here, which are indicating different ends of the sensory processing spectrum as I discussed earlier.
- Gags at the sight, smell, touch, or taste of foods. Gagging while trying to eat is a different cause that has to do with the mechanics of eating. Gagging can also be a learned behavior that may have started from either a sensitivity to sensory input or difficulty chewing or swallowing food at some point.
- Eats only certain types of textures. Most of the time the preference is crunchy foods, but sometimes soft foods are the preferred.
- Avoids or dislikes their hands getting messy, and I’m not just talking about at meals. You will often see your child get uncomfortable with crafts or digging in dirt/sand, etc.
- Overstuffs or pockets food excessively and/or frequently. Pocketing food can also be the cause of poor coordination and/or difficulty chewing.
- Never went through an oral stage as a baby/toddler where they mouthed on toys and other objects.
- Excessively mouths and chews on various toys past the age of 18 months.
Is it All Sensory?
I realize I just wrote over 800 words describing how sensory processing may be the cause of your child’s picky eating, but it is rarely the sole cause (have you notice I’ve been hinting about that). Picky eating is a complicated animal that often has many layers to it. Even if sensory processing is the major player, learned behavior and power struggles are most likely at play, too. It is really important to make sure that you have a good routine and structure in place so that you are able to see the most improvement possible. See my Eating Basics and click here and here for more strategies to help establish a consistent routine. Lastly, as I mentioned at the top, you can read more about other underlying causes of picky eating here.
How to Get Help
I want to provide you will some solid strategies to begin to improve your child’s processing of sensory information. However, there are more specialized techniques that may be appropriate under the guidance of a therapist. If your child is under 3 and you live in the US you may qualify for free in home services. Another option is, a private evaluation from an occupational therapist that specializes in feeding and sensory processing may be appropriate. With that said, these few tools can be very powerful when used consistently over a period of at least 4-6 weeks and then repeated as needed.
- Play in a variety of sensory bins at least 5-6 times per week.
- Use a vibrating toothbrush two times a day.
- When brushing teeth encourage your child to allow you to help, and brush the sides of the tongue top of the tongue and inside the cheeks as well.
- Build off of textures that your child is preferring. Think about making small changes to the foods they already like by changing up the brand, flavor, etc. This will help build bridge to new foods in a way that is comfortable.
- Encourage them to interact with the food in some way. Take baby steps. They may need to spend some time just touching the food to get used to the texture, for example.
- Cook together. This is a no-pressure time that allows kids to explore new foods. They will often feel brave enough to try something new in the fun and relaxed nature of the moment. Again, the key here is breaking down some of that sensitivity through the exploration of food.
- If your child falls into the over-stuffing/seeking texture category you will want to alternate crunchy bites of food with soft food. You can also give the cheeks a firm, but gentle squeeze if the stuffing or spitting out starts, or briskly stroke from the ears to the mouth a few times. This is not meant as a punishment, but to give input to help them process the sensation of the food better.
By implementing these strategies in combination with a solid routine you will likely see some significant changes in your child’s eating. If you’d like a little help getting your routine rock solid so you can build on these other sensory specific tips then grab this FREE 9 Tips to Improve Your Child’s Eating.