If you’ve tried everything, but your child refuses to eat except for a few “safe” foods, it’s possible your child needs feeding therapy. What is feeding therapy and what are the signs a child would benefit from it? Let’s dive in.
Your little one will go through food jags, neophobia (fear of new food), and possibly some degree of picky eating. That’s all part of childhood development.
About 25% of parents believe their child has a feeding-related problem. But only about 1-5% of children have a feeding disorder.
Food avoidance can affect a child’s growth and social development. Although feeding disorders are more common in children with developmental disabilities, they can affect any child.
If you’re concerned about your child’s eating behaviors, keep reading for signs that your child may need feeding therapy.
What Is Feeding Therapy?
Feeding therapy helps children develop feeding skills, strengthen oral motor skills, or overcome sensory food issues.
Kids with feeding difficulties beyond picky eating may benefit from feeding therapy.
A pediatric feeding disorder is when a child cannot or doesn’t eat the right amount of food and have appropriate feeding skills for their age.
This could be because of medical, nutritional, feeding skills, or psychosocial problems.
There are three general categories of feeding difficulties:
- limited appetite
- selective intake
- fear of eating
Depending on your child’s specific needs, feeding therapy may include working with a speech-language pathologist, an occupational therapist, a registered dietitian, and/or a psychologist.
For example, a speech-language pathologist helps children learn how to accept new textures or flavors in food and teaches exercises to improve motor and age-appropriate self-feeding skills.
When feeding issues are related to sensory sensitivities, working with an occupational therapist trained in feeding therapy may be a good choice.
When underweight or under-nutrition is present, pulling in a dietitian is a good move. .
Signs Your Child Would Benefit From Feeding Therapy
As a parent, knowing the difference between a child’s normal development and a sign that something is wrong can be tricky.
Trust your instincts and talk to your pediatrician if you’re concerned about your child’s food refusal or if it seems like it’s more than picky eating.
Here are a few of the most common signs to watch out for:
1. A Change in Growth
There’s no one size fits all for a child’s growth and development. Every child is unique, and kids develop at their own pace.
But, nutrition is a significant factor that affects growth. Pediatricians look for a pattern on the growth chart.
Children go through growth spurts, and then growth slows in a relatively predictable pattern.
But if a child loses weight or falls off their growth curve, it’s a sign they may not getting enough food and nutrients.
When a child refuses to eat enough to support healthy growth and development, they’ll need the help of a specialist.
2. Persistent Food Refusal
If your child refuses to try new foods and shows signs of fear or anxiety when you offer certain foods, they may have an oral aversion.
Sensory-based feeding aversions may be characterized by an aversion to certain colors, textures, and flavors. It’s not uncommon in young children.
Some kids only like white foods and others have an aversion to mushy foods.
And some babies refuse to eat because they struggle to transition between purees and solid foods or go from a bottle to a cup.
Food refusal is a concern when a child eats few foods as it can lead to nutrient deficiencies. Iron, zinc, calcium and vitamin D are critical nutrients for growing kids.
An iron deficiency during childhood can have a long-term impact on cognitive development.
Feeding therapists use play-based activities to teach children how to explore different textures and tastes without feeling overwhelmed.
This helps build their confidence when offered new foods, which can lead to increased variety in their diet.
3. Oral Motor Feeding Deficits
Some feeding problems are related to physical or medical reasons that make eating more difficult or even painful.
A child with oral motor feeding deficits can have trouble using their lips, tongue, teeth, or cheeks to chew and swallow food efficiently and safely.
Gagging, choking, or vomiting are potential signs of a physical reason or a problem with oral-motor skills. In this case, it’s especially important to seek help from a professional as soon as possible.
Feeding therapists can work with your child to strengthen their jaw muscles and teach them techniques to make swallowing easier and safer.
Keep in mind there are other reasons eating can be uncomfortable or even painful for kiddos.
Teething and ear infections are two of the most common.
4. Impaired Psycho-Social Development
Are mealtimes stressful for your child or your family? Then your family might benefit from feeding skills training.
While occasional meltdowns around mealtime can be normal for young children, if these meltdowns become more frequent, there could be underlying issues at play that require professional intervention from a therapist specializing in feeding disorders.
Food refusal also affects a child’s social development with peers at school or other activities where food is available.
For example, if food is a source of anxiety, a normally happy and social child may withdraw during lunchtime or on playdates when it’s time to eat with his friends.
Some kids may avoid social events altogether if they’re anxious about being pressured to eat.
5. Poor or Delayed Feeding Skills
The ability to self-feed is an important milestone for children.
Babies usually start out by being spoon-fed or using baby-led weaning finger foods before they eventually learn to use utensils.
A child should be able to join the family at the table without difficulty, sit during meals, and communicate that they’re full in an age-appropriate way.
Most kids can sit up around 4 to 6 months old and grasp large items in their palms. Around 9 months, babies develop a pincer grasp and can pick up tiny pieces of food between their thumb and pointer finger.
Self-feeding with utensils takes a little more dexterity and time.
When kids fall behind in these feeding milestones, feeding therapy can help strengthen their motor skills.
Final Thoughts on Feeding Therapy
If you notice any of these signs, talk to your pediatrician about whether your child needs feeding therapy.
A deficit in eating skills and/or a nutrient deficiency during childhood can be detrimental to growth and development.
So, the earlier you get ahead of this, the sooner you can help your child get back on track with healthy eating behaviors.
Need more information on picky eating? Listen to the Best of Extreme Picky Eating on The Nourished Child Podcast.
Do you want to learn more about feeding therapy? Listen to my interviews with Speech-Language Pathologists and Feeding Experts in episodes Kids Learn How to Eat With Dawn Winkelmann , TNC 044: How to Help Extreme Picky Eaters, and TNC 176: Raising Adventurous Eaters with Lara Dato.
And be sure to check out The Ultimate Guide to Feeding the Picky Eater!