Why do children have sensory food aversions? And, how can you help them overcome sensory issues with food? Get the answers and 8 simple strategies…
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. Over the last few years, I have answered many comments about how the two things are related, and often result in a sensory food aversion. I wanted to dedicate a post completely to sensory issues with food, to help you understand if sensory processing is playing a role in your child’s picky eating and, perhaps more importantly, what you can do help!
I first noticed my son’s sensory issues with food when I introduced food to him, I knew the red flags (you’ll read about those later), and if I hadn’t introduced specific sensory strategies to help him learn to eat foods we’d likely still be struggling, years later because a sensory food aversion is on a whole different level than just your average “picky eating”.
Why Do Kids Have Sensory Issues with Food?
To understand food related sensory issues we’ve first got to talk about sensory processing, which 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 those with food aversions/extreme picky eating, 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 shudder… nails on chalkboard or touching a slug? That feeling that you have may be just as extreme for your child when they touch an orange.
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 by telling you about my son who has a long history of sensory food aversions… Isaac gags and shudders every time he touches chicken, but one day he helps me make chicken in a different way. We cut it into small pieces and serve it with a fun dip in a cool little ramekin. I pretend 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 shudder or gag.
Guess what, his brain just made a new connection, and then I had a starting point to build from!
While I’ve mostly been providing examples that 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.
*Note that sensory processing isn’t just related to food, head over sensory sensitivities in kids to learn more.
Does My Child Have a Sensory Food Aversion or Disorder?
While there is no specific diagnosis for a “sensory eating disorder” or a sensory food aversion, these terms might be used when your child eats a very limited amount of foods because they have difficulty with how foods smell, taste, feel, or even how they look. Remember this is because of the way their brain is interpreting the sensations they get from food, which leads to the question.
To help narrow down if your child’s picky eating is related to sensory, it’s first helpful to think about certain groups of kids that sensory processing difficulties affect more than other’s. I’m going to list them here 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. But, having sensory processing difficulties in general DOES NOT mean that your child has one of these diagnoses. Got it? Good!
Kids that fall into one of these groups and are picky eaters often have sensory based food aversions:
- 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
So, how do those sensory “difficulties” actually show up in our kids when they are related to food, here are some specific red flags to look for…
Red Flags for Sensory Issues with Food
If you child has most or all of the behaviors here, it is possible that sensory issues with food may be part of the underlying reason your child is selective about what they eat. You will notice some opposite extremes in the list below, which are indicating different ends of the sensory processing spectrum as I discussed earlier. As your reading make a mental checklist of any that you see your child doing regularly:
- 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. Read more on how to help with Gagging at the Smell of Food.
- Eats only specific types of textures. Most of the time the preference is crunchy foods, but sometimes soft foods are the preferred. This preference can even be carried over to highly specific requests of certain brands, colors, and flavors of food, feeding therapists call this a food jag.
- 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. (This is an important point, learn more about it in Everything You Need To Know About the Tactile Sense.)
- 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 and chewed on toys and other objects.
- Excessively mouths and chews on various toys past the age of 18 months.
Find more sensory red flags that cover all the senses, not just related to eating. And, if you’d like to dive into understanding sensory as it relates to picky eating, head over to oral sensory processing, you’ll find more tips and activities there!
Are My Child’s Eating Difficulties all Related to 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 Basic Strategies to Improve Eating and the plan I used to help my son for more strategies to help establish a consistent routine.
How to Get Help for Picky Eaters with Sensory Food Aversions
I want to provide you will some solid strategies to begin to improve your child’s processing of sensory information (and I will in the next section). 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. Read all about the ins and outs of feeding therapy.
Learn more about the basics of addressing picky eating. This is really important guys, don’t take this lightly! You will see so much more success with your sensory efforts if you put my 3 Keys to Turning Around Picky Eating in place. Discover what they are and how to use them simply in your home in my FREE workshop. Click here to save your seat!
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Strategies for a Sensory Food Aversion
With that said, these few tools can be very powerful when used consistently over a period of at least 4-6 weeks because they help to desensitize the sensory system. Come back to these strategies as needed.
- Play in a variety of sensory bins at least 5-6 times per week.
- Use a vibrating toothbrush two times a day. My kids use these one’s all the time, but for smaller toddler mouths or those that are really sensitive this brush is a great option.
- 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.
- Use these picky eater friendly foods for inspiration and motivation!
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 Printable.
More for Kids with a Sensory Food Aversion
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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.