There are several reasons why children with sensory processing difficulties have challenges with eating. Eating requires postural stability to maintain sitting, whilst having the motor co-ordination and sensory processing to manipulate and eat the food put into the mouth.
Taste, smell and texture
If the child is over-responsive to smell, this can also affect their taste. Most taste perception is dependent on the perception and interpretation of smell sensations which go right from the nose to the part of the brain involved with emotions and motivation. This explains why eating can be such an emotional roller coaster for some children with sensory processing difficulties.
Sensory sensitivities can also affect the child’s ability to cope with different food textures and tastes.
Sensing hunger and fullness
We rely on Interoception to sense when we are hungry and to identify when we are full. Eating is a learnt behaviour and it is important to understand a child’s feeding history in order to support eating difficulties.
A child may have had reflux, a surgery or an unpleasant experience when starting solid foods that may now be impacting on their association with food and pain or unpleasant feelings and emotions.
‘Food Jags’ is a term used for a habit where children eat the same food, prepared the same way every day or at every meal. The problem with food jags is that a child can eventually get burned out on these foods and they are typically permanently lost from that child’s food range.
Ideas to support Eating
- Encourage active play and movement activities before sitting at the table for a meal.
- Set up good pre and post mealtime routines e.g. setting the table, washing hands, 5 minute warning and a clean-up routine involving scraping scraps into the bin.
- Eat together at the dinner table. This encourages social interactions, social modelling and exposure to different foods. Children are more likely to eat a new food if an adult is eating the same food versus just present or eating a different food.
- Use a plain placemat to define the child’s food space. This is then a portable cue that can be transferred to anywhere you go.
- If needed, allow your child movement breaks during mealtimes or allow them to sit on an air cushion e.g. move-n-sit, disc-o-sit cushion or ball chair.
- Ensure your child is feeling supported. If their feet are not supported on the ground, they may feel postural insecurity, so a foot step can help.
- Place a heavy lap bag on your child’s knee during mealtimes.
- Use a non-slip mat under their plate to hold it still.
- Offer ‘family meals’ with a buffet style set up on the table for everyone to serve themselves.
- Involve the child in meal preparations to increase their exposure to foods.
- Find other times to play with food outside of mealtimes in a different spot to where the child normally eats. e.g. puddings or jelly.
- Ensure the child has a face cloth during mealtimes to wipe their hands and face straight away if they are over sensitive to touch.
- Minimise visual and auditory distractions during meal times.