Does your kid gag or even throw up because they’re sensitive to smells, especially from food? It may seem strange, but there are some real reasons why and more importantly ways to help them!
Does this sound familiar… you’re feeling good about the fact that you’ve pulled dinner together. The kids are miraculously keeping themselves busy. You’ve thought through what you’re going to serve, making sure that you also have a side of the only mac and cheese your child will eat. A few minutes later you call the kids to the table and your daughter immediately starts freaking out about the smell…
Then, she’s gagging.
Through her gags, you hear her saying something about the broccoli. And, while you want her to stop gagging, you’re not even sure what to do, not that it matters that much because at this point she’s run out of the room because the smell of the broccoli was so horrific.
While this isn’t the case for every picky eater child or toddler, it does happen quite a bit. And, if it’s happening in your home, it can get overwhelming and confusing real quick. So let’s talk about it why kids do gag from the smell of some foods and what you can do to actually help your kid get over their sensitivity to smells, especially in the kitchen!
What’s Going on, Why the Gagging?
As parents, we tend to freak out a little when we see our kids gag, it sends those little hairs on the back of our neck straight up in the air because every parenting instinct is telling us something is very wrong. (Unless you’re totally desensitized to your child’s gags from smelling different foods because it happens so frequently, which is also possible. But, in the beginning, you were probably alarmed!)
This is even truer when we see babies and toddlers gag, even if it’s due to a sensitivity to smell. It’s hard not to think, “What is wrong with them?”
For the mommas out there that ever had a sensitivity to smell while pregnant, you may be able to relate – a little. After all, your hormones were out of control! But, here’s the thing, those hormones during pregnancy made your sense of smell much more sensitive, it was like you had the smelling capabilities of a dog.
Our children’s sense of smell could be just as sensitive.
The smell, or olfactory sense, is unique to every individual, and just like with each of our senses, we could have a very poor awareness of it or be hyper-aware (aka sensitive). It’s sort of like a spectrum, all of us falling at different points of sensitivity. I’m sure you also know some people that hardly smell anything.
Either way what this all boils down to is your child’s unique sensory system (Head to “What is Sensory?” to learn more).
For kids that’s are more sensitive to smells, what seems like a very mild smell to us, could, in fact, be quite strong for our child. And, our natural response to an absolutely repugnant smell is to gag. This is totally normal.
What’s not quite within the norm is that a food like broccoli, ham, cheese, or any other ordinary food can cause such a response. But, there’s something else that could be going on here too…
Is Your Child Sensitive to Smells or is it About the Food?
Enter the picky eater. Gagging at the smells of foods and being a picky eater, often an extreme picky eater at that, go hand in hand. If a child is so sensitive to smells that they’re occasionally or even frequently gagging at the smells of food, then they certainly aren’t going to eat those foods.
And, for some kids, the extreme picky eating came first. Meaning that if a child is so selective about their foods that they just don’t interact with a lot of different foods, this in and of itself can cause a sensitivity to smells, simply because of a lack of exposure. And, for some other kids, it might not be as much about the smell as it’s more about the thought of eating the broccoli that’s making them gag. Head over to Sensory Issues with Food to learn more.
In my OT and mom experience (oh yes, this has happened with two of my children at different points), the sensitivity to smells and picky eating are most often intertwined.
Having a sensitivity to smells could also be a clue that there are some other sensory red flags in play. When one of our senses is hypersensitive, it can throw the others off too. And, it’s very easy to overlook those sensory red flags in other areas. Check out sensory red flags to read more.
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How to Help them Stop Gagging at Smells
I’ve got two approaches for you, each with a few strategies, the first is most important and gives you some tools for dealing with sensitivity to food smells in your home.
1. Respect the sensitivity: Once you’re able to understand that your child isn’t just being a pain (even though it is one), it’s way easier to be sympathetic and patient. I’m not saying this is a perfect road, but the sensitivity IS real. Let them know that you’re on their team by respecting that they actually are sensitive, that doesn’t mean overly catering to them and never cooking broccoli or any of the offending foods again though.
There are a couple of different ways that you can show them that you get it, which actually will cut down on the gagging, or even throwing up (yes, some kids are so sensitive it will get to that point):
- Don’t react: The gagging and throwing up can turn into an attention thing even if it didn’t start out that way and whether you’re rushing to their aid or yelling at them to stop, attention is attention.
- Move foods away, reasonably: Instead of reacting when they gag, simply ask or move the food away from where they’re sitting. That’s not always enough, but sometimes it helps. You can also try keeping food on the table or stove covered with a lid. If you need help keeping your child at the table, check out my top tips over at Keeping Your Child Seated for Meals.
- Give a warning: Before you even start cooking, let your child know that you are. Often, if they’re playing in another room, to them everything seems right with the world until they unexpectedly stumble into the kitchen and its filled with a noxious smell. The surprise can send them away gagging in a hurry.
- Open a window: Sounds like common sense, but even during cold months having some air flow will help dilute strong smells. This is something you can have your child do as well, it’s a proactive step. You could say something like, “Hey Suzie, I’m about to start cooking the ham, would you like to open a window first?”
- Use a prop: Allow them some time to come to the table with a handkerchief, a hand towel, or their shirt pulled up over their nose until they get used to it. I’d only use this for the most sensitive kids, and make sure to let them know that they’ll need to put it down when it’s time to eat.
- Essential oil on the wrist: Overpower one strong scent with one that’s likely pleasant smelling. This roll-on lavender scent can be put right on the wrist and they can lift their wrist to their nose any time they need to smell something pleasant. (Feel free to explore with other scents, lavendar is known to be calming, but some floral smells could interfere with the good smells of the meal.)
2. Desensitize: If you want to level up and really help your child get over their sensitivity to smells, you can actually work on desensitizing. Here’s a couple of ideas on how to do that:
- Cook food together: Food smells usually get more intense as they’re cooked, but when your kiddo is helping you prepare the foods, they have a chance to warm up to the smell slowly. It also gives you a chance to talk about smells and smell different items right out of the spice jars. This all helps improve sensitivity to smell.
- Do smell science experiments: Have your child smell different foods and give each one a score for how big of a smell it is. Be careful not to label smells good or bad though.
- Smell other things: Choose random objects or go out in nature and smell whatever you come across. Again, talking about and exploring different smells can help their brain process smells in general better! Click here if you need some inspiration for more smell activities.
Want to Learn More…
If you’d like to do a quick check on some other sensory red flags, ones you might be missing, grab my special free printable checklist. This isn’t any sort of diagnosis, just a way for you to check in on some of the quirks and maybe some confusing things your child does. Remember when you know why you can begin to help them!
Get the Sensory Red Flags Checklist Here!
More on Sensory Sensitivities
The Best Solutions for Clothing Sensitivity in Kids
The Must-Read Weighted Blanket Guide for Kids: Calm, Relax, Sleep
Everything Oral Sensory: The Total Guide
Does Your Child Have a Sensory Sensitivity?
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Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 14 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.
Heyo! I have a sensitivity to smells of foods. It’s related to my carbohydrate and histamine intolerance. The smells are microbes. You ever hear “roses smell like poo”? Yeah, it’s the same microbe so roses can smell like poo and poo can smell like roses. It depends on your desensitizing. So, fyi, it’s the roses that smell like poo so if they smell like roses to you, think about what you are actually eating. Carrots and onions smell disgusting. It’s like a protein in them. Meat with blood in stinks or if it wasn’t frozen properly. Ethylene is the most horrid smell, comes from rotting apples and cantoloupe. It’s in your soaps and anything with food coloring. That stuff makes me nice and high. I’m 37 and it took me a good 15 years of food experiments to figure out forcing kids to eat veggies is torture. I also have a corn allergy in play so think of all the corn starch being force fed to the children. If you’re kid is picky, you should be listening and withdrawing yourself from the garbage we’re sold. Pistachios are good and help with carb processing.
I have always had a sensitivity to smells. I’ve never understood it or investigated it. But now my 4 year old daughter seems to have it. She cries bc things or people stink. So now I want to understand it more.
Hello! My daughter doesn’t have any limitations for feeding or smells nor does she have tactile sensitivity, but she often just thinks of something gross to her (i.e dog poop, mud) and she’ll gag but not throw up. I’m thinking it’s more psychological but was referred to OT. Can I apply these strategies to her as well? Or is there a different strategy I can use?
Yes, you can definitely apply these strategies to her as well 🙂
Can I just say that I was one of these children with hypersensitive sensory perception, tho we didn’t have a name for it back then. I am now 55 years old and a very healthy adult with good eating habits and an ideal weight of 105 for my 5’1″ frame.
I constantly read things on Quora and other places, from parents who think we types are spoiled or catered to and should be “forced” to eat food that makes us gag, or worse, go hungry (thankfully, my mother did neither). A very popular one I hear is “our parents made us take at least 3 bites of everything and then if we didn’t like it we didn’t have to eat it”. I would posit that you should never force your child to eat even one bite of a food that makes her or him gag, either from it’s smell or it’s taste. If they had forced a bite of cole slaw down my throat it would have been met with a major throw-up all over the dinner table – and it would have been involuntary. These days there is a plethora of food choices out there, some of which your child will like and can grow on, without having to force them to eat vine-picked foods they gag on; I’m living proof. [Besides, just merely being born hypersensitive, already sets your child up for a certain amount of sneering and abusive comments from siblings and others outside the family. Don’t make it worse by forcing them to eat food they gag on, or not eat at all. That’s cruel.]
My mother was a strict disciplinarian who never spoiled anyone, and yet, even she understood that forcing nutritious gag-inducing food on me, was not the answer. Find ways around it, with things your sensitive kid likes. This is genetics people – it’s not your child’s fault that they are hypersensitive. I don’t think I ate a green until I was in my 20’s and discovered I could handle peas. To this day I don’t eat salads because just the smell of it and any vinegar based brined foods, makes me gag. Don’t overthink this. You’re child is “gonna be alright” and he/she isn’t going to be traumatized or unhealthy if they don’t eat greens. I have always loved food, but I can’t eat foods with smells or textures that offend me. [FYI, all of my senses are more heightened than most peoples, even my sense of touch as I am very kinesthetic.]
On the bright side, I can tell you that one day (probably once they go off to college or move out on their own), either accidentally or thru derring-do, your child’s repertoire of food possibilities is going to grow gradually and exponentially. I now eat Indian, Middle Eastern, Chinese, Thai, Italian and a whole host of veggies and fruits I would never have tried as a kid; but I had to try them slowly and build up to it. As a child I could not drink orange juice because the texture of the pulp disgusted me. Now I drink OJ every morning for breakfast and I buy the freshest, pulpiest one I can find (which is getting harder and harder to find these days). As a child the only fruits I would eat were bananas and pomegranate. Now I have discovered raspberries, strawberries, figs, apricots, dates and mangoes and try to eat blueberries, tho I don’t much like the tough skins.
Life is an adventure and as long as your child is growing at a weight acceptable for his or her skeletal structure, then they will be fine and discover new foods in their own time. Supplement them in other ways. Put a variety of nuts in front of them, or if they like potatoes (as I did) then learn to cook them in an appetizing variety of ways. When in doubt – a peanut butter sandwich is a very healthy protein packed choice (healthier than meat) and most kids love it (try it hot on toast!). Just don’t scare them by forcing them; that can be as traumatizing as being thrown in the deep end of the pool to learn to swim.
Lastly, tho I don’t advocate trying to sneak foods that they don’t like into your children’s meals (my sister thought she could sneak mayonnaise into my grilled cheese and I took one bite and threw it up) – I do think that one school of thought that may be worth looking into is the one where they make healthy desserts using pureed fruits and vegetables, in lieu of sugar. I have heard that once a kid gets used to eating cookies made with these purees, they don’t like the over-sweetened ones. I think there was an excellent book on this put out by Jerry Seinfeld’s wife but there are others too I am sure. It could be worth exploring and a great way to get fruits and veggies into your child’s diet – thru a healthy dessert. And they never have to know (just don’t let them see you adding the puree ; ).
Btw, my mother did take me to be checked out by my pediatrician when I was 5 or 6 because I was small and skinny. He told her to feed me whatever I liked to eat. It was sage advice. She did just that and I am healthier than most people my age now.
I wish I had your mom when I was young. So many nights sitting at the table, crying and absolutely unable to eat that stuff! Oddly my favorite vegetable was broccoli (steamed, with butter added after), another was brown rice with a touch of soy sauce (or plain.)
Sometimes my mother would try to force me to eat things and other times not. She would sometimes give me plain spaghetti, maybe with a touch of butter, instead of the sauce-covered stuff everyone else was eating. Or, just plain brown rice when everyone else was eating chop suey.
I believe her inconsistency sometimes had more to do with ego than anything else – if she burned the peas there was no way I could choke them down but, oddly, that was were she so often drew the line. And I was never allowed to eat something else – if I didn’t eat what was served, I would be hungry. Period.
I’m over 70 years old now and the primary memory I have of meal time at my home is of being hungry.
I really hate it when people say of children (or even pets) “If they’re hungry enough, they’ll eat what they’re given.” I know for a fact that is not true and I am so glad that (many) parents don’t do that anymore.
Hi there. So, we are beginning to realize that my daughter (almost 3) has a sensitivity to the smell of our dog and cat food. I have not noticed any sensitivity to actual people food, but whenever she is exposed directly, to our pets’ food during feeding time and she is very nearby, she gags and cannot just stop at that, she empties her entire stomach (throwing up multiple times)… she also seems to do the same thing when she gets very very upset… should we have her seen? Or does that seem like something we could manage on our own?
You can always have them checked out for your piece of mind. I’d just be making sure that you are not noticing this anywhere else or that no other food/smells are causing the same reaction for her. If not, I’d just be managing that at home to help her with dealing with it!
hello my 6 yr old grandson was a micro preemie he was born at 24 weeks anyway he cant stand smells like going in a store like walmart that has a McDonalds and there cooking are if i burn a incense. if i cook, some foods at school, he smells food at lunch cooking he throws up i was wondering if you know what i can do to help him with this . thank you vicki
We can understand how difficult this is! I love that you are reaching out to try and help! If there is a smell that he does like ie”lavender” you can have that on his wrist. So that if he is smelling something he does not like he can turn to smelling his wrist. Also, I’d work on the desensitizing steps that are listed in the post to try to help decrease this.
This is stellar advice. I wish I had been given it as a child. Unfortunately, when I was a kid, one didn’t dare tell anyone that you even had a problem, much less assume there could be an easy solution. Every day the walk to the school cafeteria was a small torture, wondering what foul smells awaited me behind that closed door. Most of them I could get used to as the hour wore on, but the smell of vinegar cole slaw and raw purple onions were insurmountable for me. On those days I ate my lunch and took my leave as fast as possible, tho I did do a fair amount of nose-holding and minor gagging, especially when going thru the lunch line to pick up milk to compliment my homemade brown bag lunch. If I had known this simple tip, I think it would have made a world of difference; I will keep it in mind for future. I am glad you are able to make a difference to this woman’s grandson and other hypersensitive children.
Thanks so much for sharing!
Hope you can talk with your doc and come up with a plan! I’m sure it’s not very comfortable for him at all!
I have also searched on internet and found lot of paid online consultancy and meds are available online, few online store very popular like amazon, walmart, mygenericpharmacy etc.
Hi, just to say excellent text and ideas for overcoming the problem! Our son can easily throw up at the smell of some food.
Also, he can throw up when he sees somebody is chewing, now he learned not to look to people who are eating, but still I would like to help him with this problem. Any ideas, apart from gradual exposure to us eating 🙂
Many thanks in advance!
Thanks Milana, yes, that throwing up can come along with this, and I love that you’ve figured out how to have him not look at other’s, that’s a great strategy. I’d ask you if he ever minds getting messy, touching different textures? If he does I’d actually do a period of using sensory bins, this can help improve sensory processing and actually desensitize away from the table. See this post.
Yes, he does have some tactile and proprioceptive issues, I would say mild to moderate, however oral is his weakest link. I’m currently reading everything you have posted and cannot tell you how grateful I am for all this advice and exercises! It seems that you really understand SI and you know how to present it to us who are just parents 🙂 thank you thank you thank you!
I intend to start working on sensory bins intensively, but our main problem, which is rejecting new flavors without even trying remains to be the problem which I have no way to resolve it…
Yes, Milana, so the sensory bins will indirectly improve what he’s willing to eat because he’ll accept more textures to eat!
I’m so happy everything has been helpful. Check out the free event I have going on next week, I think it will be perfect for you. Registration just opened! yourkidstable.com/sensory-series