Many children encounter difficulties with food at some point during their growth and it isn’t always easy to understand if it is just a phase or something more. Often a child that struggles with food for a long time after the age of 14 months turns into a fussy eater and even if the calories intake is adequate most of the time, they risk to incur in micronutrients deficiencies that can impact growth.
There are so many things to consider in order to understand why some children have such a hard time with food and meals. But even with the pickiest eaters, there is a way out of eating in front of an iPad or them having their own separate meals.
Imagine feeding as the tip of an iceberg influenced by many underlying factors. A child that doesn’t eat might have a problem given by the interaction of:
- medical problems
- sensory challenges
- motor skills development
- family system and behavioural difficulties
The big role of the sensory system
One hidden connection you probably never thought about is the big role that sensory processing plays for many children when it comes to eating. In simple terms, if something smells gross, feels weird in their mouth, in their hands, or looks yucky, they aren’t going to eat it!
Various factors affect the sensory development of your child. The sensory experience of a child starts in the womb. In fact, infants that experience more flavour variety already in the womb and during breastfeeding will tend to accept more novel flavours. The diet of mom impacts the flavours of the amniotic fluid as well as the one of the breastmilk. In this regard, breastfed babies have a greater sensory experience compared to bottle-fed because the taste and smell of breast milk continuously changes as well as the consistency of breasts and nipples. Breastfed children are more likely to consume veggies at the preschool age and accept new flavours.
How do children with sensory difficulties escape and what you can do
When food is too much for a child, a typical response is to escape, actively by running away, or passively by pretending that something doesn’t exist looking around or telling stories. Let’s look at some signs that you can pay attention to understand if your child is refusing foods because of sensory dysregulation.
- Visual: Avoid eye contact with food and look away, repeated eye blinking, push food off the table
- Olfactory: Gag, cover nose, turn head away and make funny faces
- Auditive: Difficulty to eat in loud environment, eye blinking, cover ears
- Taste: Gag, vomit, shiver the whole body (sensitive to texture has immediate reaction while taste takes few seconds)
- Touch: Lips splay, avoid touching, fingers splay
In general, fruit and veggies, as well as fish and meat, are difficult from a sensory standpoint because they tend to have more bitter and sour taste or strong smells. The liking for these foods needs to be learned during the first years of life.
To increase their liking and willingness to try new foods you can try the following
- Start weaning with veggies only, alternating bitter ad sweet flavours
- Keep offering a wide variety of vegetables daily during weaning
- Allow to take even only a small taste
- Allow to spit out
- Expose children to more than one flavour at each meal and introduce new flavours at each meal
- Give them a familiar food paired with a novel food
- Repeat exposure to a new food for 10 consecutive days
What are food jags?
There are children that do not have any sensory issues with food until they reach one of the big developmental transition. The 3 major cognitive shifts happen at 2-3, 5-7 and 9-11 years and during these periods children tend to progress in an area and have a regress in another area. Very often the part of development that regresses is their sensory functioning.
When children do not want to use their sensory system food jags happen. Food jags are repeated episodes in which the child want to eat the same food prepared in the same way for many consecutive days and meals. If we let this happen, we might incur in the risk of restricting the child’s food repertoire. Indeed, at some point he won’t accept that specific food anymore and jag on another food. At some point the child will probably have a very restricted repertoire consisting only of crunchy carbohydrates.
Tips & Tricks
Keep the sensory system awake at all times serve 3 different foods (protein, starch, veggie) at each meal across the course of 2 days
If your child doesn’t have a wide enough food range, every time you serve the same food change one thing among shape, colour, taste or texture. For example, if you make pancakes one day change the shape, the day after add an avocado in the dough. Compare food to animals, turn them into something, compare to a food they like i.e. “this is a peanut butter cereal”.
Most of the time with a big load of patience and few adjustments you can help your child overcome the challenges they are facing and be back to a relaxed and enjoyable family mealtime!
Ludovica Ibba –Nutritionist and SOS Feeding Therapist Tel +45 53 33 68 29
To keep up with My Children and Me as well as insights into motherhood and to a community of families where we can share and support each other, follow us on:
If you enjoyed this article, feel free to share it on your favourite social media sites!